Fox News did an as good as job as possible with the 10 person circus style debate format they were saddled with. MSNBC's debates were a travesty in comparison.
But the format itself is a dead format and should be abandoned.
Here's the debate format I'd like to see.
Acknowledge that the way the system works now, there are a first tier and second tier of candidates. That's the reality, and by letting everyone who can get there name on a ballot to participate, you only make it harder for voters to see the differences between the candidates that might actually have a chance to be running the country one day.
Another thing worth changing would be to combine the Democrats and Republicans together. These debates are a conversation, and that conversation should offer both sides, not just one or the other, the earlier both major parties actively engage the other, the better it would be for both party's electorate to determine which candidate is best capable of offering a strong challenge in the only poll that matters, the one on the 2nd Tuesday in November of an election year.
So here's the format, invite four candidates from each party to bi-weekly debates. If logistics makes meeting in the same town impossible, there's this thing called teleconferencing, and I hear you can do pretty amazing things with it.
Have each candidate be the "host" for ten minutes at a time, asking questions to the four opposing party candidates. Have a moderator ensure that they don't use their time to ask 9 minute questions full of their own campaign talking points, but instead reward candidates for engaging the other side directly. If Sen. Clinton is a legitimate potential leader for this nation, she ought to be able to ask questions, and get asked questions, directly from Mayor Giuliani or Sen. McCain, or Gov. Romney. Likewise, a former prosecutor like Giuliani would have fun going after Clinton, or Sen. Obama, or Sen. Edwards on specific issues of interest to him and the nation.
If a candidate like Romney wanted to spend his time getting the Dems to bicker amongst themselves, he could, or he could directly challenge them to explain how their choices would be better for the country. Likewise Obama could use his time as "host" to offer a quick take on his views and challenge any of the leading Republicans to offer better.
By forcing the two sides together as early as possible, that would change the tone of these debates from monologue to dialogue. It would be up to each candidate to decide whether that dialogue should be shrill, informative, cooperative, or combative. This would give the primary voters real information on how these folks would perform come general election time, and it would generate far more interest amongst that big group of independents who sit these things out till the last minute usually.
The current format favors agreement over conflict (except when it comes to the fringe candidates like Paul, Gravel or Kucinich), and that's boring. My suggestion favors engagement while at least offering the possibility that a touch of substance might seep to the surface.
Also, by rotating in a different 4th from each party, you'd give the possibility that somebody currently on the outside like Gov. Richardson or Gov. Huckabee could make a big enough impression to build up a more solid base. Right now there's just too much noise and too little time to do so. Also, having those two changing seats in the debate would mark a difference and add some needed unpredictability to these proceedings.
Bi-weekly would be a burden on the candidates, but then these folks expect to be president one day, so it's not too much to ask if they want all that power. The more often they're exposed to situations they don't control fully control the better. We need to see how these folks operate under pressure, and my format suggestion would add a deal of pressure and force them to apply some intellectual rigor to their own positions and their understanding of their opponents'.
But neither party would ever agree to this, even though this could be a benefit to both given that the candidates who emerged from this process would be razor sharp and battle tested rather than some sad sack standard bearer who gets a shot at the presidency simply cause it was their turn.