The 2002 presidential debate was the only debate of the 2002 presidential election between the Democratic nominee, incumbent President Josiah Bartlet, and the Republican nominee, Governor Robert Ritchie of Florida.
Negotiations for the debates were intense and, due to the very tight race between the two candidates, were considered essential. The Bartlet campaign asked for five debates on different issues while the Ritchie campaign demanded two debates. Bartlet reduced his number to four debates but Ritchie refused to budge.
Eventually, Bartlet conceeded and demanded only one debate, an offer the Republicans immediately accepted.
Sullivan v. Commission on Presidential Debates
A recurring trouble for presidential debate negotiations was an attempt by third-party candidates and independants to participate in the debates. The trial usually always ruled for the commission which excluded these candidates but, in 2002, ruled for Sullivan.
An independant campaign was being run for Democratic Senator Howard Stackhouse whose objective was to keep the president honest and desired a place in the debates. Before the Sullivan ruling, Stackhouse had been making plans to drop out of the race and endorse President Bartlet. But with the possibility to enter the debates open, Stackhouse withdrew his endorsement plans. However, after being advised to change his mind by campaign strategist Amy Gardner, he pulled out and endorsed the president while the president agreed to discuss the issues that Stackhouse had been planning on talking about.
The two campaigns agreed on a series of rules for the debate which would serve to protect each candidate. These rules were:
- A panel of nominated people will ask the questions with a moderator to enforce the rules agreed by both campaigns.
- A candidate will have 90 seconds to respond to the question.
- His opponent will have 60 seconds with which to ask a question and give an answer whichmust be limited to the same topic.
- Two minute-closing statements for each candidate.
- Order of speech is to be determined by a coin toss.
The debate was held in San Diego and was a resounding win for President Bartlet whose debating style took Governor Ritchie by complete surprise.
The questions involved the divergent views held byboth candidates over the role of the federal government, partisan politics and the economy.
- Governor Ritchie appeared as a typical Republican, supporting a limited government, claiming that national issues did not require national solutions; claimed that Americans were tired of partian politics and wanted a government that united even those politically opposed to one another, as he had done in Florida; and defended his tax cut program, which had been criticized by economists as being harmful for the economy, by claiming that Americans knew how to spend their money better than the government.
- President Bartlet rebuffed these positions by claiming that while the states could deal with the issues, national needs did require national solutions (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and federal funding from the government which even Ritchie's home state of Florida had taken. He announced support for partisan politics by claiming that that was what the Founders had in mind when drafting the Constitution while at the same time denouncing Ritchie'w own partisanship when he attacked the liberals during his campaign. Finally, he ridiculed Ritchie over his tax cut plan when he asked him to justify exactly what benifits it would bring other than saving money for Americans while leaving the economy in a poor state.
President Bartlet's win was universally acknowledged and even Governor Ritchie admitted as much in the post-debate handshake. All claimed that, after this victory, Bartlet's victory in the election was unquestionable.