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McCain, Obama Agree to Open the Debates

A bi-partisan political group stumping for open political debates has scored a point or two, at least symbolically. Both presidential candidates are endorsing the group's call for greater audience involvement and availability of the debate footage.

The Open Debate Coalition's effort is headed by Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, an outspoken advocate of progressive tech policy issues, and includes a mishmash of both liberal and conservative activist groups.

It's not often that MoveOn.org and American Solutions, a group founded by former Speaker of the House New Gingrich, can agree on something, but in this case they did, along with a number of other groups and individuals, like Instapundit.com, Craig Newmark of Craigslist fame, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, and political blogs like RedState.com and OpenLeft.com.

The group had two stated goals: the open availability of all of the footage from their three debates - two of which have already taken place - and for allowing citizens to ask questions of the candidates instead of just the moderators. Typically, when debates end, the footage was never available except by the news outlets. The coalition wanted those debates in their entirety.

They also wanted a chance for the audience to participate more in the debates. Last night's "town hall" style of debate did include audience questions, along with questions from moderator Tom Brokaw, but it was the only one of the four debates - three presidential and one vice-presidential - to do it this way.

Lessig's posted an open letter on his blog to candidates to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and both have replied in the affirmative.

Dave Kralik, director of Internet strategy for American Solutions, one of the groups involved, is ecstatic. "I think this is a huge precedent setter, with Obama and McCain approving of this format. Whether or not something actually happens this go-around, I don't think either party going into the next election four years from now, or even the next election in 2010, can say 'no we won't have the wisdom of the crowd bubble up and no you can't have the [debate] footage'."

It's now up to the coalition to pressure the media outlets about both the questions for the remaining debate and to get the video footage. Kralik said even if the moderators don't start fitting in some of the pressing questions that people want answered, they can do it at various campaign stops. "So if it doesn't fit into the debate exactly, we can find a way to get it in," he said.