Election 2008: Issues

Bad Timing For A Timely Debate?

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Sen. John McCain isn't the only one who'd like to see the first presidential debate held on a different day.

In an unusual scheduling move, the debate will take place on a fall Friday night — a time often reserved for dates, sporting events, or the beginning of a weekend getaway.

The debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. ET, which will come just three minutes after the coin toss at the Olentangy High School football game in central Ohio. More than 10,000 fans are expected to be at the game at Crew Stadium in Columbus, including the school's athletic director, Jay Wolfe.

Wolfe says he would have liked to watch the debate, but this game — the nightcap of a football double-header — was scheduled three years ago.

"We're playing one of our sister schools and it's the first time that the two schools have ever met in football," Wolfe says. "It's a really big deal and of course football is a really big deal in the state of Ohio."

But, so is politics. Remember, there are more than 200,000 undecided voters in Ohio and Wolfe is one of them. He wanted to watch the presidential debate to help make up his mind.

"I think what a lot of people are going to do, especially here in the state of Ohio, is probably turn on the DVR — do it that route," he says with a laugh.

Across America, there are plenty of people miffed about the choice to hold a debate on Friday night.

But choosing a date is no easy feat, says Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group in charge of when the debates are held.

Kirk says they usually try to hold all presidential and vice presidential debates sometime after Labor Day and no later than two weeks before the election date ... which is Nov. 4 this year.

During that window of time, Kirk notes, there are NFL games, baseball playoffs and a variety of religious holidays.

Kirk stands by his Friday night choice. He says it could even help achieve one of his organization's missions — to get Americans to watch the debates with fellow voters and then compare opinions.

"Encouraging that kind of focus and attention might work to our advantage on a Friday night where there's no pressure for school or work the next morning," he says.

Also hoping to take advantage of that is a group called Drinking Liberally. They're hosting debate-watching parties across the country.

Justin Krebs of the New York City Chapter says their party will feature comedians performing a little pre-debate warm-up, admission is free and there will be plenty of beer on tap. Krebs says they aim to bring like-minded people together.

"So they don't have to watch the debates alone and ideally they won't have to watch the debates completely sober either," he says.

Krebs is expecting a lot of people, especially because it's on a Friday night. He says politics has become a key part of many young people's social lives.

"Watching political events has become sort of like watching sporting events in New York and around the country," he says. "State of the Union nights have become regularly accompanied by drinking games, and the debates are no different."

For those who just can't tune in live and don't own a Tivo, there are of course other options, including a new Web site called MyDebates. The site was launched last week by the Commission on Presidential debates and the social networking site MySpace.

Lee Brenner, executive producer of political programming at MySpace, says MyDebates will enable visitors to watch online video of the debate whenever it's convenient. It also includes a quiz where users can read about issues like free trade, gay marriage and education.

"Questions come up on the screen and with a click of the button you can answer where you stand on the issues ... and then it filters right into a scorecard that's up on the screen," Brenner says.

That online scorecard lets you know how your opinions compare with the candidates and fellow Americans.

How you watch the debate — online or on TV — shouldn't make too much of a difference, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson. It's when you watch that matters.

Jamieson directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She says that soon after any debate, pundits start declaring winners and losers and the airwaves are filled with analysis and commentary.

"There are a number of studies that suggest that the commentary fixes in place some moments that you might not have featured as a viewer while you were watching," Jamieson says. "In the process of featuring those it drops out some pieces of information you might have learned."

That's why Jamieson will tune in live in her office, where she has a TV screen rigged to watch the debates on six different channels.



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