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Bush plays debate games


WASHINGTON -- Like his father before him, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush is playing games with a carefully formulated package for presidential debates by the bipartisan commission that has been running them even-handedly for the last three elections.

Mr. Bush is dashing cold water on the Commission for Presidential Debates' proposal for three 90-minute confrontations between himself and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, each with a single moderator, on Oct. 3, 11 and 17, to be carried by all major television networks. The vice presidential debate is to be held Oct. 5.

Instead, Mr. Bush has countered with a call for only one commission-sponsored debate on Oct. 17 and two others of only an hour each on commercial television interview shows -- NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 12 and CNN's "Larry King Live" on Oct. 3. The NBC show, hosted by Tim Russert, has proved under him to be a hard-hitting affair. But Mr. King is more entertainer than newsman and has been known to serve up an array of softballs to his guests.

Mr. Gore, who has accepted the commission package, says he'll do additional debates, but only as add-ons to the commission's carefully crafted proposal, put together for at least a year by co-chairmen Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican national chairman, and Paul Kirk, a former Democratic national chairman.

Mr. Bush's gambit is obvious. He wants to shed Mr. Gore's early allegations of foot-dragging on debates and put the vice president on the defensive. More than that, however, Mr. Bush's move suggests concern that the debate format proposed by the commission -- a single moderator rather than a panel of interrogators -- will put him at a disadvantage against a more experienced debater.

In 1992, Mr. Bush's father, facing the prospect of debating Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, similarly balked at the single-moderator format.

Aides acknowledged later they figured direct, extended exchanges with Mr. Clinton would be less likely with a panel of questioners firing away randomly. But the senior Bush finally gave in after the Clinton campaign sent hecklers dressed in chicken costumes to Bush rallies to taunt him as "Chicken George."

The Texas governor made his counterproposal after a meeting of his campaign chairman, Joe Allbaugh, with Mr. Fahrenkopf and commission staff late last week at which he was informed of the complications in date selection and format faced by the commission. The commission also advised Mr. Allbaugh that the problem of third-party participation, handled by the commission requiring a 15 percent showing in major polls, could cause headaches for other debate sponsors.

It was noted that in each of the last three presidential elections, the commission had to cope with lawsuits from one or more third-party candidacies to gain a seat in the debates, and that the commission had a track record of success in withstanding them. The message conveyed was that the Bush campaign would be wise to leave that problem in the hands of the commission rather than inviting more litigation against other debate sponsors.

Although some in the Bush campaign have questioned the importance of presidential debates in an election's outcome, the record shows otherwise. In the very first one of the modern era, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960, Kennedy's confident and aggressive performance against a tired, heavily sweating and defensive Nixon was regarded as critical in elevating the younger Kennedy as a worthy competitor against the sitting vice pres- ident.

More often, debate mistakes have proved politically damaging. In 1976, President Gerald Ford suffered from his debate statement that Eastern Europe was not under Communist domination. And in the same election, the temperament of his running mate, Bob Dole, in characterizing World War II as a "Democrat war," brought heavy criticism.

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, whose bland temperament was questioned, answered a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered with a bland defense of his opposition to the death penalty. It helped cook his chan- ces.

It's no wonder that the Bush campaign wants to get its hand in on when and how the debates are conducted. But it also reveals a certain lack of confidence when contrasted with Mr. Gore's acceptance of the commission pack- age.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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