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Time to change prez debates

A new report offers ways to make them more watchable, more worthwhile and more valuable to democracy.

former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (left) shows Ron Paul what he's thinking of doing during one of the 1,000 GOP debates in 2012.
former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (left) shows Ron Paul what he's thinking of doing during one of the 1,000 GOP debates in 2012.Read moreFile photos

I KNOW IT'S early, but early is often a good time to get things done.

Take improving presidential debates.

That's something that ought to get done.

And it can, with ideas just offered under the auspices of Penn's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

A bipartisan group of 16 national political players and pollsters, gathered by center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson, just issued a 48-page report, "Democratizing the Debates."

It seeks to make debates more accessible, viewable and valuable.

That it comes now allows time for its ideas to be in place next year.

Just the thought of less circus, more substance - less from the likes of Wolf Blitzer, more from the candidates - should be enough to draw interest.

I'm not talking primary debates; those are unsalvageable. I'm talking the three presidential debates and one veep debate we've come to know and loathe.

They could be better. Here are some ways:

* No in-person audience:

A live audience requires logistics, a large facility and security, all adding to the spectacle and costs. It risks laughter, jeers and applause that can influence the TV audience.

Think Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle in '88: "You're no Jack Kennedy."

* No "spin alley:"

The alley also adds space, costs and unbearable bloviating. It's outdated, because spinners now use social media before, during and after debates.

Do we really need rows of partisans telling us how their candidate won?

* Earlier debates:

Early voting is allowed in a majority of states (not Pennsylvania, of course), and 2.1 million votes - 15 percent of the total - were cast before the final 2012 debate. Moving debates up gives all voters more chances to evaluate candidates.

* Change rules for participation:

Because 50 percent of voters 18 to 33 identify as independents, the threshold for third-party candidates should be revised.

Currently, independents need to meet ballot requirements in enough states to total 270 electoral votes (the number needed to win) and draw at least 15 percent support in national polls.

A majority of the Jamieson group says that keeping the ballot requirement but changing the polling threshold to 10 percent for the first debate, 15 percent for the second and 25 percent for the third gives outsiders a shot at competing and a chance to build support.

* Let debaters really debate:

Canned answers and one-liners are common in current formats that limit responses to two minutes. But direct engagement would allow candidates more time to question each other and do their own follow-ups, putting greater accountability on those seeking office and less on journalists or moderators.

Remember CNN's Candy Crowley fact-checking Mitt Romney during a 2012 debate? Shouldn't that have been President Obama's role?

At least one debate should be candidates head-to-head in a TV studio. Let's see who best expresses his or her ideas while deftly questioning his or her opponent's.

Jamieson says that the goal is to show "the basic distinctions between candidates that the public wants."

She adds, "Anything increasing the likelihood that people watch, let's get it out there," including full-access content feeds to social media and networks that never get debates, such as Telemundo and BET.

(The percentage of voters watching debates dropped from 60 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2012.)

Jamieson's group was co-chaired by Anita Dunn, former White House aide and campaign adviser to President Obama, and Beth Myers, senior adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign.

It included: national GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, Democratic debate trainer and strategist Michael Sheehan, Republican strategist Charles Black, Obama campaign adviser Joe Rospars and Romney campaign strategist (and former Tom Ridge consultant) Stuart Stevens.

Debates are critical. They offer voters the only opportunity for side-by-side evaluation and hints at demeanor and governing style.

Improving debates is a step toward improving democracy - a step that should be taken.