Politics & Government

Under debate plan, Obama loses height advantage

WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama would sit at a table at two of three presidential debates this fall, according to a formal proposal unveiled Thursday, which, perhaps unintentionally, would neutralize Obama’s height advantage.

The Commission on Presidential Debates proposed the less formal, more conversational talk-show format for two of three 90-minute debates it's seeking this fall. The third debate would be a town hall-style session in which the candidates would be free to get up from high stools and walk around the stage.

The two presumptive nominees haven't yet responded to the commission's proposal.

Obama is about 6 feet 1 inch tall; McCain is 5 feet 9. Candidates often try to use their heights to gain some sort of advantage in face-to-face debates, but it doesn’t always work.

Al Gore wandered close to the shorter George W. Bush in 2000, who dismissed him with a shrug as if to say, “What are you doing over here?”

The proposed debates also would feature a more open format to encourage the candidates to talk more to each other directly. The debates would be broken into eight 10-minute-long segments, each devoted to one issue. The moderator would pose an opening question, then prompt the candidates to discuss it themselves.

The moderator, who hasn't been selected yet, would try to keep the candidates roughly equal in time, but there'd be no 30-second time limits for answers, and no time buzzers.

The leaders of the bipartisan commission, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, said the candidates' seating arrangements at the debates still could be open to negotiation between the campaigns.

Other proposals, including the dates and sites selected in cooperation with the Secret Service, weren't negotiable, they said at a luncheon with reporters.

The proposed debates are:

  • Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, Miss.
  • Oct. 7 at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn., the town hall session.
  • Oct. 15 at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, N.Y.
  • The proposed vice presidential debate:

    • Oct. 2 at Washington University, in St. Louis.
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