by MONITOR l THE outcome of the US Presidential election may well hang on three hours in late September and early October when President Bush and Mr Kerry will go face-to-face in three nationally televised debates. An agreement on the debates was announced yesterday after several weeks of negotiation betwen high-powered teams representing the two candidates; the critical importance of these events was demonstrated by the status of the lead negotiators involved - James Baker (who ran Mr Bush's recount operation in Florida in 2000) for the president and Vernon Jordan, one of the most powerful lawyers in Washington, for Mr Kerry.

The first debate on 30 September in Florida will focus on foreign policy and national security; the second on 8 October in St Louis, Missouri, will cover “all subjects”; the third on 13 October in Arizona will be about domestic issues and the economy. The actual format of the meetings, each of which will last for one hour, or a little less, are determined by a bipartisan commission set up for the purpose; but the participation of both candidates is dependent on prior agreement on any number of details which even include such matters as whether they should sit or stand during the debates.

Historically the advantage on these occasions is with the challenger so Mr Bush deserves credit for agreeing to participate this year. Whether Mr Kerry will be able to put the president on the defensive is difficult to predict; too often in the past the debates have been no more than a series of statements and rebuttals with no real debating thrust as such. Knock-out blows are unlikely but points can certainly be scored by the contestant most skilled at probing his opponent's weaknesses.