Debate rules causing trouble

Organizers are disagreeing with new rules added to the agreement for the presidential and vice presidential debates, which begin today.

Campaigns have negotiated an agreement for every debate since the Commission on Presidential Debates took over organizing the events in 1987. Each year, the participating candidates sign the agreement. This year, however, the agreement also calls for signatures from the commission and all moderators.

Not everyone is eager to sign on the dotted line.

"We have not and will not sign the agreement, and our moderators will not sign the agreement," said Frank Fahrenkoph, co-chair of the commission. Fahrenkoph said the commission is a "non-profit, independent, non-political organization," and signing the agreement might "jeopardize that standing."

The moderators are independent journalists, who are likely to object for the same reasons, he said. Three national news organizations are represented in the four moderators working the debates.

According to the agreement and a schedule posted on the commission's Web site, the moderators are Jim Lehrer from PBS for the first presidential debate today, Gwen Ifill from PBS for the vice presidential debate Oct. 5, Charles Gibson from ABC for the second presidential debate Oct. 8 and Bob Schieffer from CBS for the third debate Oct. 13.

Of the three networks, only CBS news, through spokeswoman Sandy Genelius, went on the record confirming Schieffer did not, and will not, sign the agreement.

It seems likely, however, that none of the other journalists have or will sign, based on news reports and anonymous sources.

The agreement says if a moderator does not sign seven days before the debate, the two campaigns "will agree upon and select a different individual to moderate that debate."

The agreement was released to the public Monday, and, according to Fahrenkoph, Lehrer has not signed it.

Shermaze Ingram, a spokeswoman for "NewsHour," the PBS program Lehrer works for, refused to comment.

Bill Burton, spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry's campaign, said, "The first debate is tomorrow, and there's going to be one."

Burton said "as far as I know," Lehrer is still scheduled to moderate the debate.

When asked why the campaign agreed to the new rule, Burton said, "I'll say what I've said before: this is a great opportunity for John Kerry and (President) George Bush to debate each other."

He said small, trivial details were not important, but "the important thing is we have these debates."

He did not answer to whether or not the campaign would push for new moderators if the current choices do not sign the agreement.

Bush's campaign did not return calls for comment.

This year's 32-page agreement, one page longer than in 2000, according to The New York Times, also added a rule requiring audiences at the debate and watching on television to see the timer lights the candidates watch to know how much time they have left to answer.