Turns Out, There Are Rules For The Debates. Lots

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When President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney meet for their third presidential debate on Monday, there will be some rules for the candidates — and the audience.

In the first debate, Jim Lehrer of PBS demanded "Absolute silence!" Although Lehrer caught some flack for letting the candidates freewheel in that debate, he meant business when it came to keeping the audience quiet.

"If you hear something that's really terrific, sit on it!" he told the audience. "If you hear something you don't like, sit on it!"

But that's not the only debate rule — not by far.

On Oct. 15, Time magazine's Mark Halperin posted online the agreed-upon debate rules. It's a 21-page document known as a "Memorandum of Understanding."

It's a bit of a dry read, but three debates later — two presidential and one vice presidential — it's clear neither side is afraid to break the rules, at least when it comes to debating.

When Romney asked Obama, "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?" he violated Article 5 of the memorandum, Paragraph E: "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates."

And when Obama told moderator Candy Crowley, "It'll be just one second because — because this is important," Crowley was just trying to do her job and follow Article 5, Paragraph I, Subsection I: "In each debate, the moderator shall ... enforce all time limits."

The memorandum has all kinds of other provisions for the debates.

Article 5, Paragraph G also dictates proper titles: "President Obama shall be addressed by the moderator as 'Mr. President' or 'President Obama'. Governor Romney shall be addressed by the moderator as 'Governor' or 'Governor Romney.' "

While the debates can get heated, the memorandum does cover air conditioning in Article 9, Paragraph A, Subsection IX: "The Commission shall use best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature as agreed to by the campaigns."

And there is a definite rule against using props in Article 9, Paragraph B, Subsection I: "No candidate shall be permitted to use risers or any other device to create an impression of elevated height ..."

It turns out these kinds of rules are not new to this campaign. Many are holdovers from past debates.

Some go way back, says Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. That's Abraham Lincoln studies, by the way.

Wilson says that Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met for seven debates in 1858, and they haggled over the rules then, too. Things like timing were a big deal, Wilson says.

"One person speaks for an hour," Wilson says. "The second person speaks for an hour and a half, and the first person gets a half-hour rejoinder."

But Wilson says 21 pages of sections and subsections would have been a bit over the top back then.

"I don't think anybody would've proposed that," Wilson says, "because the other guy certainly would've used it to make fun of them."

Of course, back then, the crowd could yell and heckle the candidates all debate long.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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