Tonight’s debate between President Geroge W. Bush ’68 and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry ’66 officially opens the election season. For many Americans, the nominating conventions came and went without fanfare, but the country will be tuning into to tonight’s presidential debate, the first of three being held this fall.

In many ways, presidential debates are the last vestiges of an old political order — one in which the message matters and the discussion of the campaign centers around the candidates, and not around soft money or 527s. In a race that his been so dominated by these extraneous issues, we’re looking forward to tonight’s showdown. Both Bush and Kerry are good debaters, and the debate should be exciting to watch.

We’ll be watching it closely; both candidates have a lot to prove, and we hope they realize how much they both need to account for tonight. We’d like to see both candidates realize how many questions Americans still need answered about their candidacies, and we hope they both make a point of addressing the concerns of the American public with the specifics that have so far been nonexistent in this campaign.

Bush should not feel comfortable going into these debates. He may have a Clintonian sincerity and charm to boost him, but he needs to have a compelling message as well. What we most want to see from Bush is some accountability. He made a lot of promises at this time four years ago; why has he done so little to implement those plans that he can run on nearly identical campaign promises this year? Regardless of the platforms Bush does present, he needs to outline specifics — what is “peace and security” in Iraq? We know we don’t have it now, but how does he plan to get accomplish it? There are huge, fundamental problems with national defense and intelligence; Bush needs to tell us how he’s going to address them. Bush has questions that he must answer, and he cannot continue to stall in doing so.

But Kerry has his work cut out for him, too. We still don’t really know anything about John Kerry. He needs a vision — or at least to present the one he claims to have to the American public. Kerry’s political rhetoric is even more devoid of specifics than Bush’s, and Kerry better be prepared to outline the details of his platforms. We’ve been waiting for Kerry to define himself, and if he doesn’t do it today, it’s going to be too late.

We also hope the media behaves itself and covers the debate in a constructive way. We want to see the pundits break down the message, not gossip about who was sweating or who was caught on camera checking his watch. We don’t want to hear soundbites like “lockbox” or “affirmative action.” We want to know what those things mean for the nation.

We’re not going to pretend that most students — obvious flaws in the candidates or not — don’t already have their minds made up. But we hope they can watch the debates and consider both Bush and Kerry legitimate candidates with something to add to the dialogue. It’s all well and good to play drinking games every time Bush mispronounces “nuclear,” but the debates set the agenda and tone for the presidential race. Students’ shouldn’t underestimate how important the ideas presented at the debate are, and the candidates certainly can’t afford to do so either.