- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Republican nominee George W. Bush yesterday sent a team of negotiators to Washington to work on the details of presidential debates with Vice President Al Gore.
"I look forward to the debates and would hope more people watch them than before," Mr. Bush said in an on-line discussion sponsored by CNN.
Mr. Gore, who has already agreed to three debates sponsored by a special commission, said through aides that Mr. Bush is shying away from three prime-time appearances.
"George Bush is trying to do everything he can to avoid prime-time presidential debates that will be seen on all three networks," said Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani.
Mr. Bush said nothing could be further from the truth.
"Who said we don't want prime-time exposure? I welcome prime-time debates," the Texas governor said.
As the issue deflected attention from his campaign theme of education reform for the second day in a row, however, Mr. Bush dispatched his most senior advisers to meet with representatives of television networks and the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, Bush confidant Don Evans and adviser Andrew Card arrived in Washington yesterday and will continue to discuss debate formats today and Friday with officials at CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and the commission.
The commission, which has been working on the matter for two years, has proposed three presidential debates: Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. There would also be a vice-presidential debate Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.
Asked why Mr. Bush hasn't agreed to debates sponsored by the same commission that has conducted the events in recent presidential elections, Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan replied, "Governor Bush is a different kind of Republican. Anyone who expects us to follow the status quo does not understand the Bush campaign."
The commission sponsored the three debates in 1992 between Democrat Bill Clinton and President Bush and the two debates in 1996 between President Clinton and Republican Bob Dole.
Mr. Bush has said he favors an informal debate setting, citing as an example the format on CNN's "Larry King Live" with the candidates and moderator seated at a table. Aides to Mr. Gore believe the Democratic candidate fares better in a more adversarial format, such as the traditional stage with candidates standing at podiums and taking questions from a panel of journalists.
As for the charge from the Gore camp that Mr. Bush appears fearful of debating the vice president, political analyst Marshall Wittman of the Heritage Foundation said Mr. Bush is already a survivor of nine debates in the Republican primary. The GOP held 12 debates altogether; Mr. Gore and Bill Bradley held nine.
"He gets better the more he debates," Mr. Wittman said of Mr. Bush. "I would argue for more, rather than fewer."
Mr. Wittman said the appearance that Mr. Gore is more eager to debate than Mr. Bush hasn't hurt the Texas governor yet "but it has the potential to hurt him."
"At this stage, it's an annoyance," Mr. Wittman said. "Right now, people are more focused on getting back-to-school supplies for their kids."
But he said the Bush campaign needs to resolve the issue by early September so the public doesn't get the perception that Mr. Bush is afraid of the debates.
"The last thing you want in this situation is to have the guy in the chicken suit following you around," Mr. Wittman said.
Republican strategist Scott Reed, campaign manager for Mr. Dole in 1996, said Mr. Bush and his advisers shouldn't allow themselves to be pressured into a scenario they dislike.
"The debate over debates is much overblown," Mr. Reed said in an interview. "What's much more important is that the candidates get a forum and a format they're comfortable with. It's a major strategic decision for each campaign."
Mr. Reed did say he is "kind of surprised they haven't settled it already."
"Now is when you make decisions that affect October," he said. "You may decide you're going to hit an issue in the first two weeks of October. Just as an example, the format of a town-hall meeting is an easier way to explain an issue."
The Bush campaign says it is evaluating more than 50 proposals from networks, cable outlets and other organizations. Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Bush desires "forums that provide for a thorough discussion of issues."

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