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Free time to talk to the people Debate: Now that the major networks have agreed to give presidential candidates free air time, the question is, how will they use it?; CAMPAIGN 1996

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Every election year politicians share the same fantasy, whether they are Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal: to have unfettered access to the airwaves without interference from reporters, opponents or even League of Women Voters moderators.

The voting public has a deep-seated desire, too: It wants a campaign free of nasty personal attacks, negative commercials and ideas-free political discourse.

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Yesterday, with the announcement by ABC that it will join the other networks in providing free air time during the closing days of the 1996 presidential campaign, both candidates and voters might have witnessed a small step toward the realization of their dreams.

In ABC's case, the offer was for a single hour of prime time during which the candidates -- presumably President Clinton and the all-but-certain Republican nominee, Sen. Bob Dole -- would appear together in a debate without journalists or moderators.

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"They would discuss with each other, and the American people, the issues they believe to be the most important in the election," said ABC President David Westin.

Man behind the idea

Chalk up another apparent victory for a new, and unlikely power broker in national politics: a former journalist named Paul Taylor.

As the 1996 presidential cycle began, Taylor, a political reporter perhaps best known for asking Gary Hart whether he had ever committed adultery, was slated to cover the election for the Washington Post. Instead, he decided he couldn't bear to watch another campaign that was decided on visceral voter reactions to slick 30-second ads.

So he left the news business, hooked up with former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, the Pew Charitable Trusts and other allies and began lobbying the networks for their most precious resource -- free air time.

It seemed an uphill fight: He was making the request on behalf of candidates who will be given $60 million by the federal government for the express purpose of taking their campaign message coast to coast, live and on television.

In addition, there was also the little-mentioned "Dole factor" that left many Republicans cool to the idea. The problem, Democratic and Republican consultants agree, is that Clinton seems more comfortable in front of a camera than does Dole. That leads to the perception that more air time for the candidates benefits the president and harms the Senate majority leader.

"He's not in President Reagan's league, but Clinton has a real advantage, no question about it," says Paul Begala, a former Clinton strategist. "Senator Dole has a lot of gifts, but speaking into a camera isn't one of them."

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This might partly explain why those associated with the Clinton campaign greeted ABC's announcement yesterday with enthusiasm, while Dole's staff did not return phone calls about it.

"I think Paul Taylor and Walter Cronkite are national heroes," Begala says.

"The president thinks it's a good idea," adds Ann F. Lewis, deputy campaign manager for Clinton/Gore '96. "America is well-served when the candidates speak directly to the voters."

Of course, whether the candidate is required during his "free time" to do what Taylor envisions, which is just talk into a camera himself, remains to be worked out. Although such a requirement would favor their guy, even Democrats such as Begala question whether it's fair.

If Dole is camera-impaired, what about letting the conservative icon Charlton Heston speak in his place? No problem, Begala says. And if the Clinton campaign wanted to re-run its 1992 propaganda film, "Man from Hope"? Begala, speaking only for himself, would have no trouble with that, either.

But Taylor certainly would. Using the air time for anything but direct talk from the candidate himself would, in his mind, defeat the purpose of his endeavor, which is to get candidates to explain in their own words what their vision of America is and how they propose to take the country there.

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"For me, this is the key format restriction," he says. "And the only restriction."

That's because his goal is not a modest one. In fact, it's nothing less than "creating a baseline for how to conduct a whole new political conversation in this country."

Presumably, that model would then be followed where it is needed most -- at the state and local level. It's there that candidates, especially challengers, are often not covered by local television at all. It is there that fund-raising advantages are often the overwhelming factor in who wins.

In other words, presidential elections are only the beginning. Taylor began there, he says, because it's easier to focus attention on the presidential race. With the presidential race, it would be easier to bring about change.

Others agree.

"We all want a return to civility in politics," says Lynn Cutler, a longtime Democratic activist and an ally of Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The whole process starts at the top, though, and presidential candidates are the most visible."

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At least, they are supposed to be. A study done at Harvard of the 1988 campaign showed that the average network "sound bite" in which presidential candidates that year were allowed to speak, unedited, to voters on nightly network news shows had declined from 20 to 25 seconds a generation before to 8.9 seconds.

Since then, it has declined still more, to about 7 seconds. But even Taylor concedes that presidential hopefuls are not the kind of candidates who really have problems getting their word out.

If they desperately wanted network time to give their spiels unencumbered by the comments, raised eyebrows and fancy footage from the network correspondents and anchors, they could buy it themselves.

"This is why the networks are resistant to this," Taylor says. "They think this is the camel's nose under the tent. It is the camel's nose under the tent, and it should be."

Array of proposals

As of yesterday, the networks have floated a dizzying array of proposals, which, if left unchanged, would overwhelm the ability of the candidates to exploit them. The Fox network went first by agreeing to provide free air time. CNN then offered each candidate five minutes per week for four weeks on its prime-time show "Inside Politics."

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NBC promised an unspecified amount of time on its prime-time news magazine "Dateline NBC," "Today," and "Meet the Press" during the 60 days leading up to the election. CBS executives also said they envisioned that the access to the candidates would come in existing formats, such as "60 Minutes."

None of this is exactly what Taylor envisioned. He wants the networks, possibly on a rotating basis, to briefly interrupt their prime-time shows during the closing weeks of the campaign and make two or three minutes available for the candidates to chat with the American people -- without any interference from Sam Donaldson, David Brinkley or even Walter Cronkite.

Yesterday, he was busy setting up a conference for next week on this subject, and remained optimistic that the networks would ultimately agree to cooperate with his group, the candidates and each other. There would still be one hurdle remaining: the public.

"They've done this in England, which is usually 20 years behind us, and it's been a big hit all right," says Roger Stone, a Republican consultant. "Record numbers of viewers have turned this stuff off. Voters all say they want more discussion on the issues and less on personalities, but when you give it to them, it's snooze time."

Even those who favor the idea concede this is the big question. "Will people listen better or vote better?" asks Cutler. "That is something no one knows."

Pub Date: 5/09/96


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