ABC expects attention for first Presidential debate

COLUMBIA, SC: This weekend, ABC News will host the first debate of the 2004 Presidential election above the grousing of many political commentators that the debate is much too early to make a dent in the electorate's psyche.

COLUMBIA, SC: This weekend, ABC News will host the first debate of the 2004 Presidential election above the grousing of many political commentators that the debate is much too early to make a dent in the electorate's psyche.

Indeed, the first meeting of the potential challengers to President Bush has simmered on the back burner of the major news outlets thus far. A column by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz last week raised the question of whether the coverage would rise above the din of other, more pressing stories. "It may be too early for normal people to care," Kurtz wrote.

A spokesperson for ABC News who is responsible for drumming up the interest of the nation's political reporters is confident that the first gathering of the Democratic Party's nine contenders will compete with stories about Iraq and SARS.

"There's been an extraordinary level of interest in the first debate," said Su-Lin Nichols, the spokesperson. "We expect it to be a sizable news event."

Nichols dismissed the notion that the debate will be drowned out by coverage of more immediate front-page stories. She said that as long as it's the lead political story, it will get the desired attention.

"It's not as challenging as if you had other political stories," she said. "There's no competition. It'll be the key political story of the weekend."

But she declined to say whether she thought anyone other than political junkies will care.

The debate, which will be held in Columbia, SC on Saturday night and televised on ABC affiliates in markets with early primary dates, will be moderated by George Stephanopoulos, host of This Week. That show will then broadcast from Columbia the following day.

The South Carolina Democratic Party is handling local publicity. It is billing the debate as a landmark moment in state political history, and has made it part of Dem Weekend 2003.

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