Editor:

In his Aug. 27 column, Mark Shields made some excellent points regarding the format for presidential debates.

The current format encourages audience raucousness, questions from reporters that alternate between fawning and open hostility, and the spectacle of a dozen or more candidates ganging up on this week's perceived front-runner. And worse, allowing candidates 30 seconds to offer their positions on complex economic and foreign-policy issues leads to more confusion than clarity.

Mr. Shields' suggestion that debates be returned to the quiet and orderly confines of a television studio makes sense. At the same time, let's consider starting the debates after the initial primaries so that they feature the candidates with a realistic chance of being nominated. Let's also give the candidates time to answer questions, and lose all the back-and-forth squabbling. Finally, let's wrest control of the debates away from partisan party bosses and networks, and maybe give C-SPAN a shot at it.

While I'm here, let me add a word about the coming wave of televised single-candidate "town halls." I have attended bonafide town hall meetings, and they have nothing in common with the carnival-sideshow format that will prevail in the months to come. These shows are nothing but paid campaign rallies with handpicked audiences and questioners, where - according to some reports - selected questions are fed to selected candidates in advance.

In short, these are not your grandfather's "town hall meetings" where friends 'n neighbors gathered "round the ole" cracker barrel to chew th' fat while smoking their corncob pipes. There's nothing wrong with holding campaign rallies. But if you're going to hold one, don't insult us by labeling it a "town hall" rather than a campaign rally.

Most babies need to wear diapers for two years. Why should presidential campaigns last longer than that? Or could there be some connection there?

David Christovich, Woodstock