WASHINGTON (AP) _ An independent commission on Monday chose St. Louis, San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as the sites for three presidential debates this fall. Hartford, Conn., was chosen for a vice presidential debate.

The recommendations of the private, bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, led by former top officials of the Democratic and Republican parties, must be approved by the campaigns.

President Clinton's campaign had no immediate comment, nor did those of his Republican challengers.

In 1992, the debates were staged partly as the group recommended. But under pressure from then-President Bush's campaign, a panel instead of a moderator conducted one debate and half of another.

Then-challenger Clinton's campaign also pushed successfully to allow audience members to ask questions in one meeting. About 97 million viewers tuned in to that 1992 town-hall debate in Richmond, Va.

This time, the group recommends presidential debates Sept. 25 at Washington University in St. Louis, Oct. 9 at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Center and Oct. 16 at the University of San Diego.

The vice presidential debate would be Oct. 2 at Hartford's civic center.

``We sit down and pick the dates that don't run into big TV obligations _ the baseball playoffs and the World Series, especially,'' said commission spokeswoman Janet Brown.

The commission wants a town-hall format in one debate, and the presidential candidates standing behind lecterns in a second.

In the third _ and also in the vice presidential debate _ the candidates would be seated and less formal than usual.

The commission also wants each debate to be 90 minutes long, and each to have a sole moderator instead of a panel of interviewers.

By late summer, the commission plans to pick three finalists for moderator for each debate and discuss them with the campaigns before making a decision.

Network TV anchors need not apply: commission co-chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said network TV news stars have too strong a presence and distract from the candidates.

Ten cities had been finalists for the debates, among 40 that originally expressed interest.

``This is a tremendous opportunity to showcase our city and state,'' said Daniel Papermaster, head of a committee promoting Hartford as a site.

The debates involve complex logistics, such as bringing in enough phone lines for hundreds of journalists, and corporations often help pick up costs approaching $500,000.

Colleges often field hundreds of student volunteers to help out, too.

The commission began producing the presidential debates in 1988 to ensure that face-to-face, televised meetings between the major candidates happened every four years.