- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Just a few months after being accused of ducking primary debates with Sen. Bernard Sanders, Hillary Clinton now finds herself on the opposite side of the ledger, trying to pull a reluctant opponent onto the stage for the high-stakes fall forums.

The Clinton campaign in recent days has mounted an all-out offensive against Republican Donald Trump, accusing him of engaging in “shenanigans” — such as threatening to boycott the events if they compete with NFL games — simply to avoid debating the former first lady.

The billionaire businessman on Tuesday seemed to give the Clinton campaign more ammunition on that front, saying he wants to debate Mrs. Clinton but only under his terms. He said he reserves the right to veto specific moderators and will insist on other conditions before he agrees.

Unlike her previous race against Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is likely to benefit politically the more times she’s on a stage with Mr. Trump, political analysts say, making her campaign’s public relations push against her opponent a worthwhile endeavor. By going on offense on the debate schedule, Mrs. Clinton is trying to box Mr. Trump into a political corner and force the Republican to accept the forums or risk appearing scared.

His reticence, specialists say, is an early attempt to give himself an out if he ultimately decides to duck debating Mrs. Clinton.

Trump doesn’t have much incentive to debate, except convention and pressure from negative press from not debating. He’s been setting up excuses partly to give himself cover in the event they decide not to debate,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who studies presidential politics. “The formality of a debate plays to Clinton’s strengths and highlights Trump’s weaknesses. The American public will use the debates to judge candidates on their stage presence and command of policy details. Clinton excels at this. Trump is attractive to people who like his off-the-cuff style, but this approach does not play well in a debate.”

Objecting to the specifics of debates, or even pulling out of them entirely, is not new for Mr. Trump. Earlier this year, he skipped a GOP presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News during his on-again, off-again feud with the news network. He did, however, participate in all other Republican forums during the primary cycle.

This time around, Mr. Trump says it’s wrong for the Commission on Presidential Debates to schedule the events at the same time as NFL games. The first debate is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 26, at Hofstra University. The Atlanta Falcons play the New Orleans Saints at the same time that evening.

Mr. Trump contends that Mrs. Clinton is trying to minimize debate viewership, a charge the former first lady also faced during her own primary with Mr. Sanders. Several of the Democratic forums were held on Saturday and Sunday evenings when viewership typically is lower.

“As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!” Mr. Trump tweeted last month.

But unlike the debate over debates with Mr. Sanders, this time the Clinton campaign is pushing back hard and accusing Mr. Trump of trying to weasel his way out.

“It is concerning that the Trump campaign is already engaged in shenanigans around these debates,” Clinton campaign Chairman John Pedestal said in a statement Monday evening. “It is not clear if he is trying to avoid debates, or merely toying with the press to create more drama. Either way, our campaign is not interested in playing along with a debate about debates or bargaining around them.”

The other two presidential debates are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 9, and Wednesday, Oct. 19. The vice presidential debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is set for Oct. 4.

While it may seem inconceivable that Mr. Trump actually would refuse to participate in the traditional three-debate schedule, he said Tuesday that there are several conditions that must be met before he’ll sign off.

“I will absolutely do three debates. I want to debate very badly. But I have to see the conditions,” he told Time magazine. “I’m sure the [Commission on Presidential Debates] will be open to any suggestions I have, because I think they’ll be very fair suggestions.”

Mr. Trump went on to say that his participation hinges on who the moderators will be. The outspoken billionaire has a history of feuding with specific media figures, including Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Univision’s Jorge Ramos and others.

“I’ll have to see who the moderators are. Yeah, I would say that certain moderators would be unacceptable,” he said. “I will demand fair moderators.”

The moderators for the fall debates have not yet been announced.

Mr. Trump’s keen interest in the moderators, analysts say, isn’t surprising as they could play a central role in how well the Republican performs against Mrs. Clinton.

“If the moderator is empowered to ask follow-up questions, this might make Trump look less presidential as policy details are not necessarily his strength, and a probing moderator might expose that,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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