- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

While George W. Bush tried futilely to make an issue of debates, Al Gore kept demanding three traditional, prime-time confrontations, and won the argument.

That set of 90-minute debates, over two crucial weeks beginning Oct. 3, may be decisive in the campaign for the White House. Debates, Al Gore vs. George Bush with one between their running mates, will dominate the campaign while they are on, and echo afterward.

Between preparation, performance and that echo, October will be debate month. It also is the month when crucial undecided voters are likely to decide whether to go with Democrat Al Gore edging ahead in the polls and gaining on turning point issues or Republican George Bush, who has seen his early lead fade away.

Distractions from Mr. Bush's chosen messages have been part of his problem. And his debate ploy became one such distraction, with Republican critics grumbling he was wasting time by challenging Mr. Gore to talk-show debates the vice president once had said he would accept. Mr. Gore shifted, saying he would do so only as an addition to the kind of presidential debates that have become a tradition since 1976.

"If we can't trust Al Gore on debates, why should be trust him on anything?" the Republican ad asked, but it turned out that potential voters didn't much care about that dispute over details. They just wanted debates.

In an AP poll, more than half said they would watch debates, and nearly 60 percent called them an important part of the campaign.

Mr. Bush accepted what had become Mr. Gore's debate terms on Thursday.

The vice president didn't design the schedule; the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sounds official but is private, did, setting the dates and picking the sites more than six months ago. The bipartisan commission has been doing so since the 1988 campaign, always subject to agreement by the nominees.

That has led to some changes and bypassed debates. This time, the commission set debates for Boston on Oct. 3, Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11, and St. Louis on Oct. 17, with a debate between the vice presidential nominees, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 5.

The Bush campaign issued its own proposal on Aug. 17, the day Mr. Gore accepted the Democratic nomination, and before the vice president's climb in the polls. Mr. Bush said he wanted three debates but not necessarily those the commission had set, and two between the vice presidential nominees.

He later said he wanted the debates on NBC in Washington this week, on CNN in Los Angeles Oct. 3, with one commission debate on Oct. 17. Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush was trying to duck maximum exposure.

The bickering is usual. So was the upshot the candidate who most needs the headway that debates can produce is the one who yields, as Mr. Bush did.

The formats are still to be decided. Mr. Bush's negotiators say they want free flowing discussions, not rigid formats that can be forums for rehearsed sound bites.

Televised debates can turn a campaign.

George Bush, this nominee's father, said he "just felt uncomfortable" debating in the 1992 series that set him back against challenger Bill Clinton. On the other hand, he gained in the polls after a 1988 debate against Democrat Michael Dukakis. In an interview for a PBS program to be broadcast Sept. 24, the elder Mr. Bush said he found debates an ugly experience. "I don't like them," he said.

Why not?

"Partially, because I wasn't good at them. Secondly, some of it's contrived. Show business."

George W. Bush has said repeatedly that he is eager to debate. But this round was not the first in which he has miscalculated.

Riding high for the Republican nomination a year ago, he said he wouldn't debate the rest of the field until the 2000 campaign year began. But the polls in New Hampshire showed him slipping he eventually lost to Arizona's Sen. John McCain there and he started debating his rivals, nine times before it was over.

Mr. Gore has issued a stream of debate challenges since Bill Bradley started gaining on him early in their contest for the Democratic nomination. He said they should debate once a week, then upped it to twice a week.

When the nominations were won, more than six months ago, the vice president challenged Mr. Bush to weekly debates. The governor ignored it.

Now Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore will renew the tradition of presidential campaign debates that began in 1960, then lapsed for three campaigns because one nominee or the other saw no advantage in debating. They have been part of each campaign since 1976, managed by the debate commission since 1988.

Walter R. Mears is a special correspondent for the Associated Press. He has reported on presidential campaign debates for AP since 1960.

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