WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore and billionaire Ross Perot prepared yesterday for what may be a decisive televised debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement, while the administration stepped up its efforts to sway undecided lawmakers and again denounced the anti-NAFTA efforts of organized labor.
The two camps agreed on a format for the debate -- to be held tonight at 9 p.m. EST on CNN's "Larry King Live" program -- that will permit the free-wheeling give-and-take that could make the event the dramatic highlight of the protracted NAFTA deliberations.
The two men will sit on either side of the moderator and will take questions from Mr. King for 45 minutes and from telephone callers for an additional 45 minutes.
No other rules will govern their interaction, said Tom Johnson, CNN's president.
In an effort to prevent any partisan group from dominating the calls, two CNN producers, well versed on the NAFTA, will screen the telephone traffic. There will be no studio audience.
As is customary before such debates, both camps sought yesterday to influence public expectations over the encounter. White House aides described Mr. Perot as a master of the sound-bite, but insisted that Mr. Gore would correct Mr. Perot's misstatements about the trade agreement over the course of the lengthy discussion.
Mr. Perot is "great at the quip," said Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary.
"But 90 minutes is a lengthy forum."
Paul Begala, a White House political adviser, hit Mr. Perot harder, saying that Mr. Perot's public allegation Sunday about an assassination attempt on his life by Cuban hit men revealed a conspiratorial view of the world that is also evident in his anti-NAFTA arguments.
Mr. Begala called Mr. Perot a "quitter" who had abandoned one undertaking after another in his career and now wants the United States to abandon its commitment to an international trade agreement.
4 "No one can out-sound-bite Ross Perot," he said.
"You can get twice as many sound bites when you talk out of both sides of your mouth."
Mr. Perot's spokeswoman, Sharon Holman, took a shot in return at the White House team, saying Mr. Perot was following his usual routine in his north Dallas office tower.
He "doesn't need anyone to prepare him or write one-liners for him. . . . He's done 92 rallies about NAFTA, written a book on it that's on the best-seller list and done two 30-minute commercials about it," she said.
Mr. Gore spent much of the day discussing the debate with his chief of staff, Jack Quinn. He was to meet last night with his longtime debate aide, Robert Squier, and White House aides David R. Gergen, George Stephanopoulos, Mark Gearan and Michael Waldman for a mock debate session.
White House officials said that Mr. Gore's first goal is simply to give a national audience accurate information about what the treaty will accomplish to counter what they contended are Mr. Perot's exaggerations and misstatements.
But political analysts noted that since the largest part of the audience will hear details of the match indirectly, through newspaper and TV news accounts, Mr. Gore also would need to produce catchy phrases that can stand up to Mr. Perot's.
About 64 percent of U.S. households get CNN.
Some analysts say that if both men hold their own tonight, the debate may not change the outcome of the battle over NAFTA.
But if one of them commits a major blunder or scores a rhetorical master stroke, it could tip the outcome of what has become a very tight battle to sway congressional opinion.
Meanwhile, the attacks on organized labor's NAFTA stance continued yesterday as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said the unions' opposition "disturbs me."
"I think they're totally wrong insofar as NAFTA," he said.
The words echoed President Clinton's similar comments Sunday, which compelled White House officials with close ties to labor to spend much of the day Sunday and again yesterday trying to mend fences.
"It's safe to say I've been on the phone a lot the last 24 hours," said White House political director Joan Baggett, a former union official.
In a televised interview Sunday, Mr. Clinton blamed the "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" of organized labor for the difficulty he faces in trying to win support for NAFTA.
GORE-PEROT ON NAFTA
When: Tonight, 9-10:30 p.m.
TV: Cable News Network, Larry King Live.
Radio: WJHU (88.1 FM)
Format: 90 minutes on the Larry King Live Show. Viewers may call-in; the telephone number will be announced on the program.