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COMMENTARY

Are topics for 1st presidential debate set in stone?

September 28, 2012|By James Rainey
(Jai Girard/The News Hour )

The first presidential debate, set for Wednesday in Denver, will be aimed squarely at the economy, with the second half of the 90-minute session devoted to healthcare, the role of government and governing.

It would have been hard to imagine even a month ago that either the candidates, political operatives or the public would have any objection to that focus. But now changes in the news may have at least Republican Mitt Romney hoping to expand the conversation to other topics, including the recent unrest in Libya and the rest of the Mideast.

After the Oct. 3 debate opener, the candidates will have to wait almost two weeks for the Oct. 16 followup—a town hall-style contest in which foreign and domestic  topics will be welcome. The final debate on Oct. 22 is slated to center exclusively on foreign affairs. Then there will be just over two weeks to go until election day.

With questions continuing to swirl about the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Libya, where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed Sept. 11, there is sentiment in at least some Republican circles for raising the topic in debate No. 1.

Fox News personality Megyn Kelly wondered aloud on her show Friday whether Romney would be able to go after President Obama on Libya during the first debate. She asked her colleague Bret Baier. Baier opined that the Commission on Presidential Debates draws its guidelines too tightly to allow such freelancing.

The two Fox News anchors then had a chuckle over the idea that Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first debate and the PBS NewsHour veteran, might “go rogue” and bring up Libya during the 90-minute session on domestic matters. They thought not. In announcing the format earlier this month, Lehrer did note that the topics could be "subject to possible changes because of news developments." Whether he deems the events in the Mideast and North Africa significant enough for a change remains to be seen.

Lehrer previously announced there would be six 15-minute blocs to the debate, the first three on the economy, the fourth on healthcare, the fifth of “the role of government” and the sixth on “governing.”

While Lehrer has not yet signaled any intention of straying from those categories, Romney and Obama can, and doubtless will, try to stretch the envelope in any way they feel might create an opportunity. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican using the discussion about government to talk about how Obama has handled his role as commander in chief and overseer of the State Department.

james.rainey@latimes.com
Twitter: latimesrainey

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