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Camps finalize debate agreement

DERRY, N.H. -- Wrangling over details until the final hours, negotiators for President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry announced yesterday that their candidates will participate in three presidential debates in the coming days, setting the stage for an intense new phase of the campaign six weeks before the election.

Despite tussles over the timing and format, the 90-minute debates will take place more or less as initially proposed; only the subjects of the first and third debates have changed.

The first showdown will take place Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla., and will focus on national security; the second will be a town hall-style debate in St. Louis on Oct. 8, with questions from undecided voters in the audience on all subjects; and a third debate will focus on the economy, on Oct. 13, in Tempe, Ariz.. In between, on Oct. 5, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Democratic vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, will debate in Cleveland.

The biggest question mark had been the middle presidential debate, which could put Bush in the unusual position of facing questions from critics. Bush campaign aides had been reluctant to agree to the St. Louis debate, but with the president commanding a solid lead in many polls, especially in Missouri, they decided it did not present much risk.

Apart from the questions the audience will be allowed to ask, almost nothing will be left to chance.

The debate agreement was codified in a 32-page contract signed by both campaign managers, the debate commission, and the proposed moderators.

Governing items large and small, the agreement specifies such things as a stipulation that no crowd shots should be aired during the answers, cameras cannot show the opposing candidate's reactions while the other is speaking, and that Bush and Kerry, as well as Cheney and Edwards, must shake hands at the outset of each debate.

"Each candidate may move about in a predesignated area . . . and may not leave that area while debate is underway," says the agreement, evoking images of Al Gore approaching Bush -- much to the then-Texas governor's surprise -- during the 2000 campaign. "The chairs will be swivel chairs that can be locked in place and shall be of equal height," it adds, a concern of the Bush campaign as the 6-foot president faces off against the 6-foot-4-inch Massachusetts senator.

Both sides scrambled to lower expectations even before the agreement was announced. Bush aides described Kerry as "the most experienced debater in the nation," while Kerry aides depicted Bush as an affable performer who has never lost a debate in public life. Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts predicted Kerry would win the debates "on points," only narrowly giving Bush an edge on winning the debates overall.

"I think John Kerry is a very skilled, effective debater," Romney, a Republican, said. "I think that the qualities of character that are associated with the presidency will suggest that President Bush will end up stronger following the debates even though I don't think they expect him to win on points," Romney said.

Bush, campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, kept to the speaking format he usually prefers: sparring with Kerry long distance and in the embrace of supporters who asked mostly gentle questions during a town hall-style meeting.

In addition to responding to a speech Kerry gave on Iraq, Bush focused on taxes, a critical issue in this battleground state. Bush accused Kerry of seeking to raise taxes and dismissed his Democratic rival's proposal to roll back tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers, saying that the wealthy would inevitably find a way to escape the law. "Taxes are an issue in this campaign, make no mistake about it," Bush said. "The rich hire lawyers and accountants for a reason -- to kind of move [taxes] out of the way and let the tax bill go elsewhere."

Bush won New Hampshire in 2000 by just over 1 percentage point.

Glen Johnson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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