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Bush, Gore still debating debates

How many? When? Where? Moderated by whom? Who knows?

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Aides to Gov. George W. Bush are balking at a series of three presidential debates proposed by an independent commission, saying they do not want to commit to three sessions that would be broadcast in prime time by the three major networks.

Campaign officials said they also objected to the site of one of the proposed debates and were hoping for a relaxed and conversational format, possibly with the candidates sitting at a table, with a moderator who is not too adversarial.

Bush's preferences were conveyed in interviews with campaign officials and have not formally been made to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has set up presidential debates starting with the 1988 campaign. Even so, those preferences have caused something of a standoff with Vice President Al Gore, who readily accepted the commission's plans for three debates.

Gore has accused Bush of maneuvering to reduce his exposure against him. The vice president has far more national debate experience than Bush, the governor of Texas.

Janet Brown, the commission's executive director, said her organization was not about to make significant compromises.

"Our proposal is the result of 21/2 years' worth of deliberations and planning on dates, formats and venues," Brown said. "And I don't believe it's possible for the campaigns to improve upon it."

The commission is headed by Paul Kirk, the former chairman of the Democratic Party, and Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the former chairman of the Republican Party.

Officials of the Bush campaign insisted Bush was ready and eager to face off with Gore, but some viewed the commission as trying to dictate their debate strategy.

The commission announced in January that there would be three prime-time debates in October. Each would last 90 minutes and would have one moderator (none have been selected yet) but no panel of reporters. One of the debates may also have a town hall format, so ordinary citizens can ask questions.

"We feel we have a lot of different options, and we're going to look at all the options," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

But Hughes was not ready to agree to the commission's premise of three debates in prime time. Asked whether the campaign would commit to prime time, she said: "We have not made decisions about all the venues and formats. Some, maybe, could air in prime time."

Other Bush aides said one option would be to agree to a debate on a Sunday morning public-affairs program, which would draw a far smaller audience than a prime-time event.

Several Bush officials and outside advisers said in interviews that they feared that the commission might pick moderators who would be too aggressive. The moderator in 1996, Jim Lehrer of PBS, was hardly known as combative.

Ed Gillespie, a Republican consultant and an adviser to the Bush campaign, said of the questioners at debates: "Everyone tries to be the one that trips up a candidate. That's the mind-set that's by and large at play."

Some Bush officials said they also objected to the proposed site of the first debate because of its proximity to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. The actual site is the University of Massachusetts, which sits on Columbia Point, a property shared with the Kennedy library. The library is a partner with the commission in providing educational programs tied to the debate. Bush officials complained that holding a debate near the library of a Democratic president was unfair.

The Boston debate is scheduled for Oct. 3. The commission has also set a debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11 and one at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 17. A vice presidential debate has been scheduled for Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

In their eagerness to gain the most leverage over what has become the most-watched events of the political season, campaigns always posture and position during the run-up to the presidential debates. Gore and Bush say they expect that debates will take place. "I know we're going to have three debates," Bush said Monday at a news conference in Austin. "I look forward to it."

But officials in both camps concede that given the differences on the two sides, compromises may be made, such as the prospect that one of the debates may not be broadcast in prime time on all three major networks.

Gore has presented himself as much more willing to debate than Bush. He has been calling for twice-weekly debates with Bush since March. But his aides insist that before they participate in any debates with the governor, Bush has to agree to the commission's three face-offs.

Mocking Bush as reluctant to debate, Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman, said, "George W. Bush's ideal debate would take place on a local cable access channel in Austin during the Olympic finals of the women's gymnastic contest."

Bush's aides insist they are not ducking, and in fact are calling their proposal for five debates -- three presidential and two vice presidential -- a record number.

Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for Bush, accused Gore of playing games by making any other debates contingent on the candidates' agreement first to take part in the commission debates. He said that the commission had "equal standing" with other prospective debate sponsors and that the campaign felt no obligation to agree to the commission's proposal.

William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, and Donald Evans, his counterpart with the Bush campaign, have spoken twice about the debates, most recently late last week, according to aides in both camps. But the two sides said no genuine negotiations had begun.

About the only thing the sides seem to agree on is that they do not want third party candidates, namely Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, to participate. But they would be excluded anyway by the commission, whose rules prohibit the participation of any candidate who does not have at least 15 percent support in national polls.

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