Friday, September 17, 2004

Some Republicans, angered by what they call “stonewalling” by CBS anchor Dan Rather of documents relating to President Bush’s National Guard record, are objecting to the participation of CBS in the presidential debates between Mr. Bush and John Kerry.

“It’s not appropriate for any employee of CBS to moderate or participate in the debates as long as CBS continues to be an actor on side in the 2004 presidential campaign,” said Grover Norquist, chairman of Americans for Tax Reform.

James A. Baker III is leading the Bush campaign team that is negotiating with the Kerry team, headed by lawyer Vernon Jordan, over the number, dates and participants in the forums planned by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

The commission has been unnerved by the silence from the Bush and Kerry campaigns on what parts of the commission’s planned debate format and dates they have jointly agreed to accept.

“In the past, a week’s notice would have been adequate, but this is the first post-9/11 debate series,” said Janet Brown, executive director of the commission.

“We have a responsibility to ensure the safety not only of the candidates, but also the community.”

The Kerry campaign months ago agreed to the commission-proposed schedule, including a single vice-presidential debate.

Members of the press have speculated that the Bush campaign is stalling because debates potentially hold less benefit for the president than for Mr. Kerry.

Meanwhile, a series of hurricanes in Florida might have rendered plans for the first debate in Miami on Sept. 30 pointless, some associated with the debate process said. A second debate is set for Oct. 8 in St. Louis.

Neither side was forthcoming yesterday on progress toward any agreement.

“Secretary Baker is leading the discussions on the terms of these debates and we only know one thing: There will be vigorous debates on the issues, and the president looks forward to them,” said Reed Dickens, a Bush campaign spokesman.

The Kerry side also was tight-lipped. “As we’ve said before, Baker and Jordan have spoken several times informally, and we expect negotiations to move forward very shortly,” said Christine Anderson, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman.

For Mr. Kerry, the challenge of the debates is to turn anti-Bush voters into pro-Kerry voters, some Republicans say.

“The president is already a very well-defined figure,” Mr. Dickens said. “The public has seen him laugh, cry and make tough decisions.”

Mr. Dickens said Mr. Kerry is the one who needs to tell people something they don’t know about him. Republicans say he had that opportunity during the four days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston and passed up the opportunity, spending four days instead telling them what they already know: that he was a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

“The game clock is ticking, and their own clock is running out,” Mr. Dickens said.

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