THE PRESIDENTIAL race is heading downhill.
Instead of constructive debate, we focus on foolish remarks by noncandidates, like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ("U.S.KKK.A"), Geraldine Ferraro ("If Obama was a white man"), Samantha Power (Hillary "is a monster"), and James Carville (Bill Richardson is a "Judas").
The fall campaign will probably also deteriorate into accusations and acrimony. But shouldn't a presidential contest be more illuminating?
There is a way to elevate the debate.
It's an idea that could even resolve the dispute between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about how to pick convention delegates for Florida and Michigan. And it would end the Democratic stalemate, and enliven democratic politics.
Focused Debate Trial
The solution combines four decision-making tools: a pollster's focus group, Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, jury trial, and a secret ballot.
Here's how it could work in Florida and/or Michigan:
A neutral pollster, approved by both Democratic candidates, would randomly select 600 in-state Democratic primary voters to participate in a focus group.
They'd each receive $2,000 to be voters/jurors in a "Focused Debate Trial."
The trial would be a Saturday-Sunday forum, perhaps hosted by University of Florida or University of Michigan - someplace with an auditorium, conference rooms, and bedrooms.
Voters/jurors would listen as each campaign presented a case for its candidate.
The trial would open and close with Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between candidates (taking turns speaking at length, free to pose questions to each other, with no media panelists).
Between debates, the campaigns would take half-hour turns extolling their candidates' achievements, leadership skills, issue positions, philosophy, character, electability, etc.
They could present "evidence" in videos, slides, and print documents. Candidates could have witnesses testify for them (like Bill Clinton and John Kerry). Campaign advocates could dispute or ignore what the other side said. And candidates could cross-examine the opposition witnesses.
A moderator/judge (someone neutral like Senator Joe Biden, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee) would explain and enforce the rules agreed to by both campaigns. The proceedings would be broadcast live and streamed online.
Following Sunday's session, voters/jurors would break up into groups of 12, go to conference rooms, and for 90 minutes discuss what they'd learned.
Then, the 600 would vote ("cast their verdict") for a candidate by secret ballot. The votes would be counted, certified, and then announced by Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Here's how it would resolve the Florida and/or Michigan stalemate:
The candidates and state and national Democratic committees would agree to abide by the results. The percent of votes each candidate received (for example, 65 percent to 35 percent) would determine the number of delegates each candidate could name.
A Focused Debate Trial would be fair, affordable, and doable by June.
Both candidates would have an opportunity to win what they need: If Obama won the trial, he'd secure enough delegates to clinch the nomination in June. Otherwise, he risks a Clinton comeback and a divisive August convention.
Clinton needs a large majority of Florida and Michigan delegates to have any realistic chance of winning.
The Focused Debate Trial could happen only if both campaigns can agree on a neutral pollster, and trust sponsors like the DNC and C-SPAN to produce the event.
Innovation in politics
A presidential Focused Debate Trial could capture the imagination of the world. People would see a new way to debate, sample public opinion, and resolve a dispute.
Instead of a telephone survey revealing what mostly underinformed voters think, a Focused Debate Trial would reveal what voters thought after they heard both sides.
Unlike TV debates that are really joint press conferences, candidates could explain their differences in-depth instead of in sound-bites.
Instead of "just words" in a debate, a candidate could prove or disprove a claim with visual evidence. Instead of candidates boasting about their qualifications, "witnesses" could attest to their trustworthiness. And those witnesses could be cross-examined.
Unlike televised trials about celebrity scandal or grisly murder, a Focused Debate Trial would focus on major issues that voters would debate as well.
Both Obama and Clinton must feel confident that, if voters truly knew both sides, they'd win a majority.
But how confident are they?
Todd Domke is a Boston-area Republican political analyst, public relations strategist, and author.