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Candidate Debates Define Positions

Presidential candidates have been confronting each other in a series of debates meant to give voters a sense of where each aspirant stands on critical issues. In this segment of "How America Elects," VOA's Jeffrey Young examines whether these encounters have achieved their purpose.


"She [Hillary Clinton] voted with [President] Bush and [Vice President] Cheney!" said former North Carolina Democratic Senator John Edwards.


"People are not attacking me because I am a woman,” stated Senator Clinton. “They are attacking me because I am ahead [in the polls]!"

And, of course, a chance for candidates to state their positions.

New Mexico Democratic Governor Bill Richardson declared, "Let us debate the issues that affect the American people."

All of that, and more, in the debates.

The 2008 presidential contest has more candidates – and more candidate debates – than any other recent race.

"Governor Romney, you have been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record!" said Arizona Republican Senator John McCain at one of their debates.

And there is an important reason for all of this clashing. Political communications consultant Peter Fenn explains. "This is the first time since 1952 that you have not had an incumbent president or vice president running on the ticket, and someone who is known [far in advance] as the [party's] nominee. And so both parties [the Democratic and the Republican] are open.”

Because the field of candidates is so crowded, each contender uses the debates as a way to get attention, as American University's Candice Nelson notes. "What each candidate tries to do is to get a 'sound bite' during the debate that will be played over and over again on the media," she says.

Former Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee said of two fellow debaters, "I am more than content to let them fight all they want tonight, and shed each other's blood. And then I will be ready to run for president."

The present era of presidential debates began in 1976, when incumbent President Gerald Ford sparred with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Debates have been part of presidential elections ever since. But they are not structured as point-and-rebuttal arguments. The format is more question and response, with other candidates commenting.

Since the 1988 election, the independent, nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has run the three major pre-Election Day debates. That is still months away.

Debates have now spilled over from TV to the Internet. Candidate debates sponsored by CNN television and the website YouTube enable web users to pose questions to the candidates.

Both major parties have embraced this novel development. Between now and Election Day, many more debates will be held. And what will voters take away from these encounters?

American University's Candice Nelson predicts a familiar pattern. "If you look at the history of debates, what stands out is not what the candidates said, but the gaffes that they make."

Such as when former Republican President Gerald Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe"

And the candidates – as well as the news media – are waiting to pounce when someone stumbles.