- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

George W. Bush yesterday challenged Vice President Al Gore to three televised presidential debates one to take place on CNN's "Larry King Live" and another Sept. 12 on a special prime-time edition of NBC's "Meet the Press."
"Let the debate begin," the Texas governor said at a news conference in Austin.
The Bush proposal was immediately rejected by the Gore campaign, which insisted that the vice president would not agree to any debates until Mr. Bush agreed to appear in three events scheduled by a special presidential debate commission.
In announcing his proposal, however, Mr. Bush showed taped footage of Mr. Gore accepting invitations to debate on the King show and "Meet the Press."
"My opponent has said he will debate any time, any place and he has already accepted the debates that I am accepting today," Mr. Bush said. "I take Al Gore at his word that he will be there."
Mr. Gore's refusal gave the Bush team a chance to turn the table on the vice president's campaign, which has repeatedly accused the Texas governor of being afraid to debate.
"The vice president of the United States said he accepted debates on NBC's 'Meet the Press' and CNN's 'Larry King Live,' " Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement. "If he refuses to appear, his credibility will be on the line… . After eight years of word parsing from the White House, Al Gore should not fudge on what the definition of the word 'accept' is."
In rejecting Mr. Bush's offer, Mr. Gore argued that fewer Americans will see debates that are carried only on a single network program. The vice president said he prefers "all three networks sharing all of the debates," as they would in the face-offs proposed by the bipartisan presidential commission on debates.
"I'm really disappointed in [Mr. Bush's] reaction," Mr. Gore said. "It's not fair to the American people to try to sharply reduce the number of people who will see the debates."
But Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said that both CNN and NBC have agreed to make video feeds of the events simultaneously available to the other networks.
In addition to an hourlong prime time debate on "Meet the Press" and another Oct. 3 on "Larry King Live," Mr. Bush also challenged Mr. Gore to a 90-minute debate Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis one of the three events planned by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The Bush proposal also included two vice-presidential debates, one of which an Oct. 11 event in Winston-Salem, N.C. coincides with the date and site of a presidential debate planned by the commission.
The commission plan calls for three presidential debates Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, and Oct. 17 in St. Louis and one vice-presidential debate, Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane insisted last night his boss is not worried about appearing to duck Mr. Bush's debate challenge.
"I think there'll be tremendous pressure put on the Bush campaign by the American people," Mr. Lehane told The Washington Times at a campaign stop in Philadelphia. "The presidential commission forum and format was created for them so as many as possible can see the debates. My guess is there'll be tremendous pressure for the Bush campaign to step up to the plate."
Gore campaign chairman William Daley issued a terse rebuke to Mr. Bush.
"We reject George Bush's plan to shortchange Americans by cutting tens of millions of people out of the presidential debate audience," Mr. Daley said. "Governor Bush should follow the example set by his father and by Bob Dole and participate in the universally broadcast Presidential Commission debates.
"No candidate should arrogantly insist on debating only where and when it best suits him," Mr. Daley added.
The debate over debates largely overshadowed the start of Mr. Gore's 24-hour campaign sprint through four battleground states yesterday. Mr. Gore and his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, left Washington late in the afternoon and planned to stay up all night as they zigzagged across the country, trolling for votes straight through this evening.
Earlier on CNN's "Late Edition," Mr. Fleischer had predicted that Mr. Gore would "shortly back out of a lot of the debates he's already said he's accepted… . I think it is interesting to note that the vice president has said he accepts all these debates… . The vice president will say one thing and do another."
Still, Mr. Lehane insisted the Gore campaign would not be knocked off message by Mr. Bush's challenge.
"I think what it shows is a [Bush] campaign that is becoming increasingly desperate," Mr. Lehane said. "They have seen the poll numbers change, and they are reacting to that in the same sense that they put out a negative ad toward the end of last week.
"If you want to see empirical evidence that this race has changed that the dynamics of this race have changed just look at how the Bush campaign is acting," he added.
Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman, dubbed their grueling 24-hour campaign tour the "American Workathon." Campaign aides called it "Al and Joe's Hard Day's Night Tour."
Whatever the name, the Democrats were determined to make Labor Day which once marked the traditional start of presidential campaigns but now merely signals the frenetic final lap a productive use of their time. The round-the-clock campaign swing begins a week in which Mr. Gore plans to focus on his comprehensive economic plan for the nation.
Mr. Gore and his running mate pumped the hands of construction workers building a hotel in downtown Philadelphia last night.
From there he planned to fly to Michigan which is shaping up to be the bellwether state in this year's election to greet third-shift workers at a Flint hospital. Then it was on to Florida in time for a 5:30 a.m. breakfast with Tampa firefighters and an appearance on NBC's "Today" show.
Mr. Gore planned to return to Pennsylvania by noon today to march in a Pittsburgh parade and take part in other Labor Day festivities. He was then scheduled to fly to Kentucky for a rally outside the Louisville Motor Speedway before retiring to his hotel by 8 p.m.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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