Wednesday, September 8, 2004

President Bush yesterday met for the first time with James A. Baker III, who will lead his team in negotiating the campaign debate schedule, but reached no decisions on where, when or how often the president will debate Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, campaign officials said.

“They’re just starting to discuss what the particulars of the debate will be,” said one Bush campaign official.

“We look forward to debating Senator Kerry on the issues that matter to the American people, and discussing the president’s positive agenda for America’s future,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who declined to discuss the campaign’s preferences on the number and timing of the debates.

The Kerry campaign said it already has agreed to three debates with Mr. Bush, as suggested by a bipartisan presidential debates commission.

“We have accepted, on July 15, all four dates proposed by the commission and are now getting ready to engage in negotiations with the Bush campaign’s representatives,” said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Christine Anderson, referring to the three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.

Bush spokesman Brian Jones said the president would have his work cut out for him against Mr. Kerry, whom Mr. Jones described as a skilled and proven debater. Miss Anderson responded by accusing the Bush camp of “already playing the expectations game.”

“The president is a fantastic debater, and he has never lost a debate in his professional career,” she said. “He did really well against Al Gore [in 2000], and this will be the toughest set of debates in John Kerry’s life.”

The Kerry campaign said it also has agreed to the commission proposal for a single debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Mr. Baker, a Bush family friend who held top-level posts under President Reagan and the first President Bush, will be meeting with Washington lawyer and Democratic Party mover and shaker Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Mr. Kerry’s lead negotiator, to hammer out an agreement on times and places.

Mr. Jones labeled as “pure speculation” press reports that the Bush camp wants only two debates and is especially chary of the second commission-proposed debate that would be town-hall style with self-identified undecided voters in the audience asking questions of both candidates.

“The situation probably reflects conventional wisdom,” said Charles Black, longtime senior adviser to Republican presidential campaigns. “The guy who is behind wants more debates, the guy ahead — especially an incumbent — wants fewer.”

Under the proposed schedule, Mr. Bush might have the advantage, because the third debate is to be devoted to foreign affairs.

“Foreign policy and security issues are the president’s strong suit,” said Mr. Black. “Most Democrats think Kerry ought to be talking about jobs and health care — Kerry doesn’t seem to agree with that.”

Instead of going after the president on domestic issues, Mr. Kerry has been pounding Mr. Bush for “mistakes” in the conduct of the Iraq war.

The debate commission, headed by former Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and former Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., proposed a Sept. 30 domestic-policy debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., and an Oct. 15 foreign-policy debate at Arizona State University in Tempe, as well as a vice-presidential debate on Oct. 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Between the Sept. 30 and Oct. 15 Bush-Kerry encounters, the commission proposed a debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8, with participants to be picked by the Gallup Organization.

Under the commission proposal, PBS “NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer would moderate the first Bush-Kerry debate; ABC News’ “Good Morning America” anchor, Charles Gibson, the second; and CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent, Bob Schieffer, the third. PBS “NewsHour” senior correspondent Gwen Ifill would moderate the Cheney-Edwards debate.

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