- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

George W. Bush's campaign aides openly acknowledge that Al Gore is a formidable debater who deserves to be heavily favored in any one-on-one meeting with their candidate. Maybe they're right. The debates haven't even been held, and Bush is already losing them.

He is doing that through strenuous efforts to minimize any confrontation that would expose his verbal and intellectual shortcomings. Last weekend, he balked at participating in the three 90-minute forums scheduled by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which have been in charge of these things since 1988. Having gotten to the Super Bowl, Bush now thinks he has the right to change the rules and pick the referees.

Last weekend, he said he would appear at only one of the commission's affairs, ditching the others in favor of a prime-time edition of “Meet the Press” on Sept. 12 and an appearance on “Larry King Live” on Oct. 3. Each of the latter would last just an hour, reducing by 60 minutes the amount of time in which the governor could be revealed as a dunce.

The Republican alternative would also diminish the number of viewers to whom he would be exposed. The commission debates would be carried by ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, while the ones preferred by Bush would most likely be carried only on the host network. Wall-to-wall coverage encourages people to tune in by eliminating their usual entertainment options, an approach that delivered 97 million viewers during the last 1996 debate.

That's about 96.9 million higher than the number desired by Bush's advisers, who operate on the assumption that the less voters know about him, the better. One Republican strategist in Washington quoted by The New York Times surmised that the governor dreads the traditional, time-metered format because “he's concerned about filling the full two-minute answer.” His strategists hope the American people don't notice his apparent inability to string together half a dozen consecutive intelligible sentences in defense of his policies.

It may seem unfair to choose a president on the talents required for debating, but the presidential forums don't exactly demand Stephen Hawking's brains or Winston Churchill's command of the language. Keep in mind that in 1992, Al Gore fought a battle of wits against Dan Quayle and emerged second best. We are reduced to this: Bush is afraid he may not be able to meet the high standard set by Quayle.

Bush and Company scoff at criticism of their tactics, asserting that “no one cares” about the debate on debates, as long as their candidate actually nerves himself to show up, eventually, somewhere, for a little mano a mano. Wrong. Not everyone will watch the debates or be influenced by what the candidates say in them. But the way things are going, everyone will know that Gore was eager to debate and Bush was not. This knowledge may elicit questions unflattering to Bush, such as whether a guy who runs away from Al Gore can be counted on to stand up to Saddam Hussein.

Why Bush treats the debates as radioactive is a puzzle. The governor was no verbal whiz in the primaries, yet he survived and even prospered in no fewer than 10 different free-for-alls with John McCain, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and the rest. He performed more than adequately in a showdown with the clever, sharp-tongued incumbent Ann Richards when he first ran for governor in 1994.

Bush also has the advantage over Gore in personality, which counts as much as anything else in this sort of matchup. Ronald Reagan, who was not famous for his depth of knowledge, came through unscathed in his encounters with Jimmy Carter, John Anderson and Walter Mondale. Gore's overbearing style and grim demeanor could work to Bush's advantage on the vital question of which guy the American people want to put up with for four years.

Instead, the Bush camp is trying to use the issue to one-up Gore, noting that he previously agreed to debate on “Meet the Press” and “Larry King Live.” Says adviser Karl Rove, “Now, we'll see if he knows the meaning of the word 'accept.'”

But Bush is only outsmarting himself. Gore has offered to participate in all the commission debates along with any of 42 others. Bush has offered to do a single commission debate and only two other truncated affairs. Someone looks like a weasel, and it's not Gore.

What Americans appraising Bush want from the debates is not a chance to see if he's smarter than his opponent. They just want to know if he's smart enough to be president. But maybe they don't need debates to figure that out.

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