Playing politics on Bush-Gore debates


HERE'S YOUR choice next Tuesday night as you curl up on your sofa and ponder which TV show to watch. Will it be "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"? "NYPD Blue"? Or a conversation between Al Gore and George W. Bush?

In the ratings game, the Gore-Bush debate would finish last.

That may be what Mr. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, seeks: a debate format short in length, suitable to his informal style and largely unwatched.

That's the impression the Texas governor is leaving. He looks like he's trying to manipulate this year's presidential debates for his own strategic purposes.

It's unfair to the public, which needs as much exposure to the two major party candidates as possible before the Nov. 7 election.

Ignoring the schedule set by the nonpartisan, independent Commission on Presidential Debates, which has staged these important confrontations since 1988, is a big mistake. People expect Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush to take part in these 90-minute dialogues -- in prime time, carried by all the major broadcast networks. It helps them size up the two candidates.

Appearing on the Larry King show, where the emcee is famed for tossing softball questions, won't cut it. Nor will a special evening edition of "Meet the Press." The other networks say they won't broadcast them. Besides, millions of Americans can't even get CNN on their TV sets.

Debates have been a ritual of presidential campaigns for four decades. Suddenly, Mr. Bush wants to rewrite the rules.

Give the Texas governor credit, though, for trying to pull a fast one. Sorry, it didn't work.

Now it's time for Bush operatives to sit down with the commission staff and agree to at least three debates, on the dates already set. After that, the two candidates can go mano a mano on Larry King, Oprah, Jerry Springer -- even with Don Scott and Marty Bass. The sky's the limit. But this process ought to start with the commission's three debates, broadcast live by all the network cameras, in living color.

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