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CNN Student News One-Sheet: Debates

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  • Use this One-Sheet to help your students understand debates
  • During debates, candidates answer questions about the issues of the day
  • In 2008, there will be three presidential debates
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(CNN Student News) -- Historical Background:
Presidential debates are a product of the television era. In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy met in the first general election presidential debate, which was viewed by about 70 million people.

One goal of a debate, both then and now, is to look presidential. Though there were differences between Kennedy and Nixon on the issues, some historians say that Kennedy's appearance and demeanor during this debate led to his victory over Nixon.

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Debates disappeared from the general election scene for 16 years, as President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, and Nixon avoided facing his opponents in 1968 and 1972. In 1976, incumbent President Gerald Ford challenged Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter to a debate, heralding a new era of presidential debates.

The League of Women Voters managed the face-to-face contests from 1976 until 1984. In 1987, the Democratic and Republican parties established the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to sponsor and produce the general election presidential debates. Some have argued the commission unfairly favors the current two-party system. The commission requires a third-party participant to be polling at 15 percent in order to participate in a presidential debate.

Debates traditionally feature two candidates fielding questions from the moderator and generating rebuttals.

For one debate in 1992, candidates answered questions from the audience in the first town hall forum. That year, the commission hosted the first three-way political debates when Ross Perot appeared with President George H. W. Bush and then-Governor Bill Clinton. In 1996, the commission barred Perot from appearing, stating that he did not have "a 'realistic' chance to win election." In 2004, the candidates for vice president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, debated while seated at a table with the moderator.

During debates, candidates are asked questions on the issues of the day. This year, expect questions about the Iraq war, energy policy, taxes, immigration and the economy. Voters will see all of this unfold live on television, and the media and political experts will provide analysis afterward. While the campaigns may declare victory after a debate, the result at the ballot box determines the real winner.

2008 debates:
There will be three presidential debates in 2008 and one vice presidential debate, all sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission, in collaboration with the two major political parties, chooses the dates, location, formats and moderators for each event.

First presidential debate
When: Friday, September 26, 9 p.m. ET
Where: University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi
The candidates will sit with moderator Jim Lehrer at a table. Lehrer will introduce foreign policy issues on which each candidate will comment, and there may be direct exchanges between the candidates.

Vice presidential debate
When: Thursday, October 2, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
Gwen Ifill will moderate a debate between the vice presidential candidates covering foreign and domestic topics, using a similar format to the first presidential debate.

Second presidential debate
When: Tuesday, October 7, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee
This debate will be a town hall meeting, where moderator Tom Brokaw will supply the candidates with questions provided by undecided voters from the Nashville area as well as ones submitted via Internet.


Third presidential debate
When: Wednesday, October 15, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York
Bob Schieffer will sit down with the candidates as moderator in a domestic policy debate similar in format to the first presidential debate. The candidates will deliver closing statements at the end of this final presidential debate.

Sources: The Commission on Presidential Debates, CNN Library,

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