In the age of television, presidential primary debates are almost as much a part of the nominating process as the whistlestop state-by-state campaigning. With a crowded field of a half-dozen or more contenders seeking the presidential nomination--in 1996 ten Republicans were announced candidates-presidential primary debates can be described, however, more accurately as joint appearances than debates. Time constraints limit each candidate's answers to one or two minutes, and by the time all of the candidates have responded to the moderator, the audience begins to get restless. Most presidential candidates are more than eager to gain even a brief moment on network television or C-SPAN to present their case. Only when the primary field has been winnowed down to three or four candidates, however, do the debates become closer to genuine forensic contests.
More than a dozen presidential primary debates have been held in each of the past three presidential election cycles ( 1988-1996). Moreover, their popularity with the voters and media alike suggests that the number may increase rather than decline in future nominating races.
Presidential primary debates, it should be noted, predate the first nationally-televised national conventions in 1952 by four years.
The first presidential primary debate, held during the 1948 Oregon presidential primary campaign, pitted New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey against former Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen in the Republican primary. Highlighted coast to coast, on the 560-station Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), Dewey and Stassen debated the controversial ques-