That, and other news, in today’s Political Panorama.

Barack Obama and John McCain will engage in a looser debate format than in previous general election debates — welcome news for anyone tired of the stodgy, structured past forums. But the vice presidential debate will largely stay close to past formats, according to the New York Times.

Patrick Healy writes, “At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden,
will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the
presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less
opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running

“McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose
format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a
disadvantage and largely on the defensive.”

My take: A looser format for the presidential debates could help McCain, especially when it comes to candidates ability to engage in personal exchanges. Under attack from Hillary Clinton in primary debates, Obama at times seemed a bit rattled, particularly in their final encounter in Pennsylvania. But the veep debate could end up helping Joseph Biden, as it perhaps removes some unpredictability and risk going up against a largely unknown candidate in the debate format.

But the switch to a more free-wheeling style among Obama and McCain is long overdue, especially given the myriad of formats that voters saw in the record-watched debates during primary season. Debates ranged from town hall forums, man-on-the-street queries, e-mailed questions and, of course, YouTube’s talking snowmen. And the new format also will allow the candidates make lengthier comments about the economy in their first debate on Friday. The theme of the debate is foreign policy.

“SNL” Strikes Again: “Saturday Night Live” devoted its opening skit to John McCain, apparently with the help of one of its former writers, Al Franken. According to the Politico, he suggested ideas for the opening sketch via phone from Minnesota, where he is running for Senate.

The Politico: “Franken’s input to the show blindsided his campaign staff, who have
been forced to explain away some of the more crass and profane parts of
his past writing and acting that have been used as fodder against him
in a state known for its polite manners.

“A spokeswoman for Franken, Colleen Murray, first said the Democratic
Senate candidate “didn’t write anything for SNL tonight.” But pressed
if he was involved in the show or had been in contact with staff
members, Murray admitted Franken had a role in Saturday’s program.”

Expect Franken’s challenger Norm Coleman to make a big deal of this (Senator, or comedy writer?) especially in a state where voters elected celebrity candidate Jesse Ventura to the governorship in 1998, then got frustrated when he took a monnlighting job as a commentator for NBC’s ill-fated football league the XFL.

Here’s the sketch:

Robbins Reacts: Tim Robbins tells the Politico’s Jeffrey Ressner, “When McCain’s
campaign out-and-out lies, why is that a story? Why report the lie?” he
asked. “If Charles Manson calls and says that he’s innocent of
committing murder, is that a story? Well, no, Charles, you’ve been
convicted, it’s a lie and we all know it, so we’re not going to run
that story. Isn’t there an attempt made to say, ‘Look, that’s not true
and we’re not going to print it’?”

Raising on Pitt: Supporters of Proposition 8, which seeks to ban same-sex marriage in the state of California, are now raising money on Brad Pitt’s $100,000 donation last week. Karen England, campaign manager for Yes on 8, says in an e-mail that Pitt’s contribution is “more evidence that Hollywood’s elite are out of touch with the average American.”

“With wealthy Hollywood lining up to destroy marriage, we call on every concerned citizen to donate $15 for every Brad Pitt movie they have ever seen. And if they haven’t see any Brad Pitt movies, to donate $10 for those unseen films.” (Could she be referring to “Meet Joe Black”?)