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Debate planners: We want it to be 'good television'

Larry Rubenstein / Reuters

Barack Obama debated Mitt Romney in Denver on October 3, but the event had been in the works months earlier.

The stage was set for Tuesday’s presidential debate long before the fuss over the moderator’s role became an issue.

Details from room temperature to what type of chairs will be used on stage to logistics over facility parking and whether candidates will use hand-held microphones or lapel mikes were worked out months before, both with and without campaign participation.

“We work with the campaigns, but our drive is the production value. We are doing this for the tens of millions of viewers watching and we want to make sure it’s good television,” said Peter Eyre, a senior adviser for the Commission on Presidential Debates.

When the nonpartisan, nonprofit commission announced the site and format for all three presidential debates, the Summer Olympics opening ceremony was days away. And when journalist Candy Crowley was named as moderator for the second showdown, Mitt Romney had yet to be declared his party’s official nominee.

“Several months before, we had set the groundwork, we had set the rules,” said Eyre.

Veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine remembers when senior campaign attorneys would negotiate debate logistics before the commission began sponsoring the events in 1988.

He recalled how Lee Atwater, who managed President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, locked himself in a room to hammer out debate details with James Johnson, the campaign manager for Democrat Walter Mondale. The two butted heads for days over the smallest staging details before kicking the issue down to lower-level handlers, who “practically worked it out in a matter of minutes.”

Even after debate formats have been decided, additional negotiations continue, mainly between the campaigns. 

Watch video: Obama and Romney prep for debate

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

Hofstra University students Josh Ettinger (L) and Tevon Hyman (R) act as stand-ins for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama during stage rehearsals for the second presidential debate Tuesday.

Tuesday night’s format will be a town meeting, where candidates can walk around the stage to interact with the moderator, members or the audience and even each other. The potential for unpredictability may be more obvious than the previous presidential debate, where Romney and President Obama stood behind lecterns. But something as simple as podium height has created havoc among campaign strategists worried about giving what they see as the smallest edge to their rival.

Height was famously an issue for Democrat Michael Dukakis, who was considerably shorter than Republican George H. W. Bush. Ultimately, a carpenter on the debate set built a riser for Dukakis and covered it with carpet so it was nearly undetected on television. The Bush campaign dubbed it  “the pitcher’s mound.”

The color of the stage’s backdrop was an issue in another debate. In 1976, advisers to President Ford originally feared that the shade of stage’s blue background would emphasize the president’s thinning hair.

Watch video: Could second presidential debate reset the race?

“Those visual elements were the things that the campaigns insisted on,” said Devine, a top adviser to Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry. “They’ll say, ‘A stand up debate? Okay, we’ll have to do it, but they’ll have to be x-number of things that we insist upon.’”

That’s partly the source of the current din over Tuesday’s debate moderated by Crowley at New York’s Hofstra University. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have voiced complaints about whether Crowley, a seasoned political reporter for CNN, will press the candidates with tough follow-up questions to expand upon those that will be posed by audience members. They point to a memorandum of understanding signed by both campaigns that forbids aggressive follow-up questioning.

Eyre said Crowley was not a party to the memo, and neither were other debate moderators or the commission.

Eun Kyung Kim is a TODAY.com contributor based in Washington. She has learned to ignore complaints about the way she moderates debates between her children.

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