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A note from the Debates '98 coordinator

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 1998

Cear Readers,

Jeanne Grinstead
In some ways these debates have been four years in the making.

As we've checked off the many debate preparations -- including campaign negotiations, distribution of more than 1,000 audience tickets to the public, state and national media needs, security arrangements -- we've been reminded of how far we've come.

It was September 1994 when the Times first stepped to the plate to plan a governor's debate as part of Voices of Florida, a statewide project that tried to bring citizens into campaign conversations. Rather than placing an emphasis on what candidates did to win the race, a group of newspapers reacted that year to what voters wanted to know about how the candidates would lead Florida.

To reach millions of voters throughout Florida, we began working closely with the television networks to present the candidates in a live, unrehearsed setting.

The Times was on track when we suddenly collided head-on with Julie Jarvis, regional producer for NBC News Channel. She also was determined to produce a gubernatorial debate. Through some quick retooling, along with tremendous cooperation from news director Dan Bradley and WFLA-Ch. 8, the Times and the NBC stations of Florida entered what was to be a partnership of trust and confidence. Jarvis produced the debate between Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, and is the NBC executive producer of Debates '98.

On the successful heels of the '94 debate, the Times prepared a bid in 1995 to the Commission on Presidential Debates to bring a presidential debate to St. Petersburg. "Why not?" we thought. Democracy depends on an informed and involved electorate, and what better way than participating in a debate to directly involve citizens in the election?

The Commission liked what it saw, and in January 1996 chose St. Petersburg. The newspaper led the local effort to host the nationally televised debate between the candidates for vice president of the United States -- marking the first time that a news organization was involved as a producer of a presidential debate.

Each forum has served as a valuable tool for voters, and the Times and NBC have folded many of the lessons of the '94 and '96 debates -- good and bad alike -- into this year's effort.

We have been able to draw from those experiences to smoothly navigate through such complicated issues as format, the stage set, timing and lighting.

If all of these arrangements come together as expected Monday and Tuesday, you won't even have noticed them. That's one of our goals.

And thank you for watching and listening.

Jeanne Grinstead
Debates '98 coordinator


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