QUINCY, Ill. -- In the city that saw a historic 19th century debate, John Kerry called for monthly debates with President Bush to elevate the tenor of a campaign that's opened with a relentlessly negative tone.
"Surely, if the attack ads can start now, at least we can agree to start a real discussion about America's future," said Kerry, speaking Saturday to about 500 people packed into a school gymnasium.
"America shouldn't have to put up with eight months of sniping," said Kerry. "We need to get off that detour and back into the true path of democracy."
Though eight months remain until the presidential election, Bush has launched an attack ad campaign bashing Kerry, and Kerry has fired back with a campaign of his own. For months, Kerry has bashed Bush as he campaigned against his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kerry made his call in Quincy, the largest city to hold the 1858 series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during a Senate campaign eventually won by Douglas. On Oct. 13 of that year, 20,000 people gathered at Quincy to hear the sixth of what would be seven debates between the two men.
"Both candidates laid out their positions plainly and honestly," said Kerry. "They clashed but over differences in policy, not personal attacks."
Kerry argued the Lincoln-Douglas debates included "sharp exchanges, but they were a serious, honest discussion of important questions of the day, sparking enormous public interest."
Voters of that earlier era were energized by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said.
Kerry on Saturday put a lock on the Democratic presidential nomination as he reached the number of delegates needed to become the party's candidate to take on Bush in the general election, according to a delegate tally by The Associated Press.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign dismissed the debate suggestion, arguing that Kerry is largely responsible for the campaign's tenor.
"After calling Republicans crooks and liars, running 17 negative ads over 15,000 times and spending $6.3 million attacking the president, John Kerry is calling for a civil debate on the issues," said Schmidt. "John Kerry should finish the debate with himself."
The dynamic of this year's presidential contest is unique. Kerry emerged from the nominating season relatively quickly and without suffering deep scars from the primary process. That left him as the presumptive nominee months before the two political parties officially award their nominations at national conventions.
With his Democratic rivals dispatched, Kerry has been free to focus his fire on Bush, and Bush has returned the favor, launching an attack ad campaign this week accusing Kerry of being a big-spending liberal who is weak on national security issues.
Kerry's call is unlikely to have much impact on the series of presidential debates to be held next fall, with an independent commission controlling the debate schedule. There likely will be three debates between Bush and Kerry, and one debate between the vice presidential candidates.
In addition to underscoring the debate history, Kerry was spending his day campaigning in a Midwestern industrial state that's important in the fall campaign. After Illinois, Kerry was scheduled to fly to Pennsylvania and Ohio, also key swing states.
"Who knows, maybe after it's all over George Bush and I will be able to sit down together at a Red Sox-Rangers game and shake hands as friends," said Kerry. "That would be an election where all Americans would win in the end."