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Johnny Isakson rival questions whether debate format favors Republican

Updated at 2:55 p.m.: 

The Atlanta Press Club's decision to require all three U.S. Senate candidates to sit during this week's debate has prompted the ire of Sen. Johnny Isakson's rivals. And Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley suggested the format could help the incumbent Republican, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease.

The candidates found out Tuesday that they’ll be sitting during the hourlong debate, which is sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and will be taped Friday and aired Sunday on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The setup represents a departure from past Georgia Public Broadcasting matchups, during which candidates typically confronted one another from behind podiums.

The crews of Buckley and Democrat Jim Barksdale, 63, are upset because of the body language that a seated debate can prompt -- sitting and sharp confrontation don’t necessarily go together.

And Buckley, 56, took things a step further Wednesday by saying that the format could help Isakson, 71.

"As a man in his 70s going against two younger men, sitting aids Isakson. I have no problem with Isakson (or Jim Barksdale) sitting, but candidates should be permitted to stand," Buckley said in an email, adding, "I feel for Isakson concerning his health situation."

The Smyrna Libertarian, who ran for Senate twice before, said all the debates he participated in during past races were behind podiums.

Atlanta Press Club President Lauri Strauss said the formatting decision was made because the next discussion being taped that day, about the governor's Opportunity School District, will be seated. She said none of the three candidates requested the format and defended the debate's fairness.

"The core of our debate format does not change, in which journalists question the candidates, but we do change other aspects from time to time," said Strauss. "This year we decided to have the candidates seated for both of our hour-long programs."

A Barksdale spokesman did not comment and Isakson's campaign said it "look(s) forward to a debate about the real issues that matter to Georgia."

Both Barksdale and Buckley are livid at Isakson for agreeing to only one televised debate this cycle. They've criticized the two-term incumbent for hiding from the media.

For his part, Isakson said he travels the state regularly and has done hundreds of interviews so that voters know where he stands.

We should note that the vice presidential debate earlier this month between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence was seated, as were past matchups on the presidential level. (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton reportedly asked to use podiums for tonight's debate, breaking with recent custom for the third and final televised presidential duel.)

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.