Final Debate Format Will Allow More Room for Discussion 

The last presidential debate will allow the candidates to question and engage each other

In the strange land of presidential debates, format matters.

Monday night's final showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney will likely be a more somber affair than the feisty town hall debate that featured verbal attacks and finger-pointing from both candidates.

In that debate on Long Island, NY, the candidates were encouraged to walk around and interact with each other. When the candidates face off at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. tonight, they will both be seated and won't have an audience to engage.

Moderator Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and anchor of Face the Nation, will be seated at a desk with the candidates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said Schieffer selected six topics for the 90-minute debate including "our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan," "red lines — Israel and Iran" and "America's role in the world."

Each topic will run for 15 minutes. The candidates will each have two minutes to respond to an initial question; after that, Schieffer will moderate a discussion on the topic.

"I think it would be great if I could pose a question and the two men could answer and the other guy says, 'That can’t be right,' and they get into it," Schieffer told the Palm Beach Post.

"I wouldn’t intervene in that because they would be expanding the discussion."

The sparks could fly during those ten-minute discussions. The candidates are being encouraged to talk to each other, challenge their points and even ask each other questions.

“The format is brand new. We have tried to do what the American public says they want. Which is to take away the minute timing of these debates and actually give extended periods of time for the candidates to discuss the issues. I think that has worked really well,” Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Debates, told CBS Miami.

The format will be similar to the vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, where the competing candidates faced each other while seated side by side at a table.

Moderator Martha Raddatz was a much bigger presence during the VP debate than the much-criticized Jim Lehrer, whom critics say had trouble controlling the candidates during the first presidential debate.

TV critic Robert Bianco told USA Today that having Raddatz seated with the candidates helped her keep control.

"It helped, perhaps, that she was sitting at a table with them rather than sitting downstage while the candidates were upstage at podiums, the situation Lehrer faced. As every parent knows, it's harder for children to misbehave when they're within your reach."

The town hall style debate moderated by Candy Crowley allowed the candidates the freedom to challenge each other directly. Some viewers felt the exchanges were too antagonistic and not very presidential, but it definitely made for more interesting viewing.

Here, the president and his challenger face off over oil production on federal lands.

Even though Obama eeked out a win among debate watchers, it was Crowley's role as moderator who overshadowed both candidates.

Republicans attacked her for asking questions about immigration, women's issues and gun control that favored Obama.

She was also heavily attacked for on the spot fact checking by correcting Romney when he said Obama never used the words "act of terror" to refer to the attacks in Benghazi.

It may have made for good TV but the audience suffers when serious policy discussion gets lost in a back-and-forth.

NBC’s David Gregory criticized the candidates for breaking the rules, telling POLITICO that it “makes the moderators look like they don’t have any control.”

“These campaigns aren’t willing to just sit down, have a conversation … and have a moderator there to police that a little bit,” Gregory told POLITICO.

“That’s the kind of debate that the American people deserve, not what we have been treated to with an antiquated format and campaigns that want to select moderators or veto moderators and arbitrate these rules that they don’t even follow.”

Global Post's Mac Deford agreed, saying the substance of the debates often gets lost amid the format.

Whether it's Jim Lehrer asking the questions and then meekly disappearing into the woodwork, or a bunch of local Long Islanders, managed by Candy Crowley, asking pre-approved questions, the format permits the two candidates to repeat endlessly their little memorized formulas. For Romney, it's his five-point plan; for Obama, his support for the middle class; and for both, it's jobs, jobs, and jobs.

It's likely that Schieffer will fall somewhere in the middle between Lehrer and Crowley's styles. He will have the advantage of both candidates at eye-level but will also have to reign in two men who have their last chance to make their case to the American people.

Foreign policy might not be the number one issue on voters minds in the last two weeks before the election but this third and final debate still has the chance to sway undecided voters.

The Los Angeles Times reports that one poll found that 61 percent of Florida voters and 59 percent of Ohio voters called foreign affairs one of the most important or a "very important" issue.

Both candidates will have to make their case in an engaging and informative way. Otherwise we'll all have to flip to Monday Night Football.

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