When it comes to debates, more is better

The public deserves the most vigorous debate season the candidates can provide.

Presidential debates have become an integral part of the political process. Debates such as those between then-presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas or between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon are historical events in and of themselves.

More recently, the debates between President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, where Bush exceeded previous low expectations and proved himself a formidable opponent, clearly had an effect on the 2000 presidential election.

The public deserves the most vigorous debate season the candidates can provide. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry must debate as often as possible and in uncontrolled situations. Currently, Kerry has agreed to three debates. Bush has not officially said how many debates he prefers, but aides have said there should be no more than two. Three debates should be the bare minimum. For example, Nixon and Kennedy squared off four times in 1960.

While both candidates are maintaining a blistering campaign schedule, the electorate, and especially those not living in swing states, deserves at least a substantial amount of live television exposure to both Bush and Kerry.

Empirical totals aside, the format is central to the debates’ informative value. “Town-hall” style debates are more fluid and unpredictable than conventional ones, giving the public a better idea of candidates’ beliefs, values and character. Frankly, while conventional debates have up sides, they can become little more than free campaign ads, and rather long-winded ones at that.

While neither candidate has agreed to any debates using the “town-hall” format, four years ago, Bush wanted to use unconventional forums instead of their more staid counterparts. We enthusiastically agree.

While there might be some benefit to one conventional debate where each candidate could explain his vision in detail, the more candid discussions offer a better perspective on how and what Bush and Kerry actually think about issues, including Iraq, health care, education and gay marriage.

If either or both candidates balks at or hinders the negotiations currently setting these debates, the electorate should interpret that lack of candor as an attempt to hide something.