WASHINGTON -- Creating what many analysts believe might be a last-gasp opportunity for President Bush, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have agreed to cram in three debates in nine days and to include independent Ross Perot.
The candidates will debate Sunday, Oct. 11, again on Oct. 13 or Oct. 15, and for the last time on Monday, Oct. 19, their aides said yesterday. The three vice presidential candidates will debate once, either Oct. 13 or Oct. 15.
Though Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot have more to gain than the front-running Mr. Clinton, political analysts generally agree it will be very difficult for the president to use the debates to overtake Mr. Clinton -- and virtually impossible for Mr. Perot to do so.
Debates historically have tended to reinforce existing voter impressions, which would benefit Mr. Clinton, who is leading Mr. Bush by at least 9 percentage points in most polls. "People tend to stick with their man unless there is really some gross error that is made," said Larry Hugick, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.
Mr. Bush's strategy is to use negative ads and speeches to raise questions about Mr. Clinton in the next two weeks and then exploit doubts about him in the debates and hope the Democrat performs badly.
Mr. Perot can benefit just by appearing with the other two men, analysts say. But he is far back in the polls and could be hurt if he demonstrates less expertise than his opponents.
"I think what this does for Perot is give him an opportunity to slug it out and differentiate himself from the others," said George C. Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M; University.
Mr. Perot could also help Mr. Clinton by joining in attacks on the president. But analysts say he could gain at the Democrat's expense if he comes across as a credible alternative to Mr. Bush.
At present, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Clinton is attacking Mr. Perot, which may not change during the debates, according to some experts, because both major party candidates want to woo the Texan's supporters.
But Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton will have plenty of chances to go after one another during their three 90-minute confrontations.
In the first debate, a panel of reporters will ask questions, a format sought by Mr. Bush partly because he hopes the journalists will ask Mr. Clinton questions about the draft and other troublesome issues.
There will be only a moderator in one of the other two debates, a format that Mr. Clinton preferred. The remaining debate -- either the second or the third -- will have a mix, possibly a moderator and selected voters who would ask questions, according to campaign sources, who asked not to be identified.
Campaign officials will determine who is chosen to ask the questions at the debates.
In addition to the details of the formats, the debate sites were still to be finalized. But officials close to the talks said the first two debates would probably be in St. Louis and Atlanta. The most likely sites for the final two debates would be two cities previously selected by the commission: Richmond, Va., and East Lansing, Mich.
The commission's debate schedule was scrapped when Mr. Bush refused to accept it, and the two campaigns agreed this week to come up with their own.
In an abrupt turnabout this week, Mr. Bush demanded four debates, continuing to the Sunday before the Nov. 3 election. Agreeing to three, Mr. Clinton's negotiators won a major point in setting the last debate for Oct. 19. That would give the Democrats two weeks to respond to any unexpected charges arising in the final debate and time to focus voters' attention on the economy.