How about this as a format for a candidate debate:

1. Select one reasonably narrow topic such as “Resolved, Illegal Immigration is Bad for the United States,” or “Resolved, Governmentally Mandated Purchase of Medical Insurance is Inappropriate in Our Free Society.” Perhaps each of the top ten or so candidates in recent polls could submit and then vote on topics other than the one he had himself submitted. Presumably, the votes of each of the other candidates would be based on his own perceptions of his talents in debating the topics. At a subsequent debate on the first topic example (illegal immigration),  Representative Bachmann could argue in support of the proposition and Governor Perry could argue in opposition.  Both could clarify perceptions as to where they stand.  Is Governor Perry really soft on illegal immigration? Maybe not.  The problems faced by Texas, with extensive Mexican borders and lots of illegal immigrants, are different from those faced by Massachusetts and most other states. Also, Texas seems to have done much to keep them out.  Beyond that, the courts have held their exclusion to be essentially a function of the federal government with which the states can’t interfere because under currently popular legal theory the matter has been dealt with by the federal government; it is doing a rotten job of it.  Governor Perry needs to explain his position better, in a well focused debate.  On the second example, healthcare, has RomneyCare been good or bad for Massachusetts?  If a state can do it, does that mean that the federal government can or should?  As Bryan Preston commented here, “poorly thought out statements . . .  can come out of Obama’s mouth and do him no harm at all, but every Republican will be held accountable for every word they have ever said.” He was commenting on an ill advised statement by Rick Santorum, but it applies to all.

2. Select a keynote speaker to frame the debate and probably to state his own views on the topic.  The candidates delivering the keynote addresses should be rotated in subsequent debates to give all or most that opportunity.  By setting forth his own views in succinct fashion, the keynote speaker would have an excellent opportunity to make them clear, well beyond soundbites to be mischaracterized later by his opponents and by the media. There would be no requirement that the keynote speaker support the proposition to be debated, provided that he address it and it only — for, against or perhaps to argue that some intermediate ground is better.

3. For each debate, select two, and only two, candidates as debaters – preferably those who seem to have the most divergent as well as cogent views on the selected topic. This would, in effect, mean three candidates on stage and, it is to be hoped, able and well prepared to present their views. Adequate preparation for any debate is essential, and its its absence has been obvious. To avoid an appearance of unfair advantage, the candidate who submitted the resolution selected for debate could be neither the keynote speaker nor one of the debaters on it.

4. Allow the keynote speaker five minutes for his address. If well prepared and succinct that should be adequate.  Then the selected proponent of the resolution would have fifteen minutes, of which he could reserve no more than seven minutes for rebuttal. The opponent of the resolution would then get his fifteen minutes, to be followed by the proponent in his rebuttal.

5. Following the formal debate, permit a limited number of questions from the remaining candidates. These should be limited to the scope of the issue being debated. Neither the keynote speaker nor the debating candidates would be permitted to ask each other, or other candidates not on the stage, questions – they could deal, should they wish, with what they perceive to be the views of others during their own times at the rostrum. The total time for such questions and answers should be limited to perhaps twenty-five minutes, making the total time (exclusive of commercial and other breaks) one hour. For a tightly formatted and well thought out debate, that should be sufficient.

6. A timekeeper and a judge will be needed to enforce the time limits and to curtail off-topic discussions and questions. Neither would not be permitted to ask, or to rephrase, questions and neither should be a candidate.