- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Three nationally televised debates between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry have been agreed to by negotiators for both sides, the campaigns jointly announced yesterday.

“The debates will provide an opportunity for President Bush and Senator Kerry to have a serious discussion about the important issues to be decided in this election,” Bush campaign lead debate negotiator James A. Baker III and Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Kerry campaign’s chief negotiator, said in a joint statement.

They said the two presidential candidates will debate foreign policy and homeland security on Sept. 30, at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

Next, the candidates will field questions from undecided voters at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8.

Finally, they will debate domestic policy and economic issues at Arizona State University in Tempe on Oct. 13, according to the joint statement.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry running mate Sen. John Edwards will debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland on Oct. 5.

All of the encounters will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time and were originally proposed by a bipartisan debate commission, which had initially proposed that the third debate be on foreign policy and the first Bush-Kerry matchup be on domestic issues.

Observers in both parties agree that foreign policy and securing the nation against terrorism are Mr. Bush’s strengths, while the economy and other domestic issues play to Mr. Kerry’s strength.

“Foreign policy is the stronger position for Bush. More people will watch the first debate, and it will set the tone for the rest of the debates — and, frankly, the rest of the campaign,” said Grover Norquist, a Republican activist close to the Bush campaign.

Historically, the first presidential debate attracts the largest TV viewership.

Bob Schieffer of CBS will moderate the third presidential debate. Last week, Mr. Norquist and other Republicans said CBS should not participate in the debates because the network and Dan Rather had, in effect, contributed to the Kerry campaign by publicizing apparently forged documents impugning Mr. Bush’s National Guard service.

But Nicole Devenish, Bush campaign communications director, last night labeled as untrue an Internet report that top Bush campaign officials want to dump Mr. Schieffer.

“That’s not true,” she said. “I was with Jim Baker today, and he agreed to all the terms, including the moderator from CBS.”

Some Republicans close to the Bush campaign initially had expressed confidence that Mr. Baker would hold out for two debates and reject the town-hall-style third encounter proposed by the commission.

The Bush campaign “gave them the three debates they wanted, but got foreign policy — the president’s strong suit — first,” said former Virginia Gov. James S. GIlmore III, a former Republican National Committee chairman.

Normally, an incumbent president has little to benefit from direct encounters with his challenger, who can gain stature simply by appearing on the same stage, as an equal, with the president.

Also, some Republicans feared that some of the self-identified “undecided” voters could turn out to be partisans for one of the candidates. But for the town-hall debate, audience members must submit questions in advance to the moderator.

The campaigns agreed that the candidates will be limited to two-minute answers, 90-second rebuttals and one-minute rejoinders.

In the first and third debates, they will stand at a podium. In the town-hall format, they will sit on stools and cannot question each other directly or approach each other when they get off the stools, as Democrat Al Gore did in 2000.

Miss Devenish said the agreement reached yesterday also will make “very clear whenever the candidates attempt to filibuster or grandstand.”

“There is a light that will flash for TV audiences when that happens — a historic first,” she said. “Moderators have to sign on and say they agree with the rules, or we’ll find new moderators.”

Mr. Kerry had agreed early on to the commission proposal and quickly named Mr. Jordan, a well-connected Washington lawyer, to lead the Democrat team, along with four other negotiators for the Kerry campaign.

Not to be outdone, when Mr. Bush named Mr. Baker to head up his team, he came up with six other team members. Some members were chosen for the negotiating teams to add heft and experience, others were for — as one debate source put it — “window dressing.”

Mr. Baker was the natural choice for Mr. Bush, given that Mr. Baker, a tough negotiator, has held top positions under President Reagan and the first President Bush.

Early on, Mr. Baker and Mr. Jordan decided there was little point in trying to assemble all 12 negotiators in the same room. Mr. Baker has been dealing directly with Mr. Jordan.

The other Bush team negotiators were U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Bush confidante Karen Hughes; Allan B. Hubbard, former deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle; veteran campaign strategist Mary Matalin; and Mark Wallace, deputy campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2004.

Mr. Jordan’s team included Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano; Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm; Washington businessman Jim Johnson, who headed Mr. Kerry’s vice-presidential search committee; and Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, a debate preparer of Democratic candidates since 1976.

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