WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush agreed yesterday to meet in three, 90-minute prime-time TV debates next month under the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The deal appears to represent a total retreat by Bush, who now trails Gore in most national polls. The Republican nominee had initially rejected the commission's debate plans, worked out months ago.
The agreement, which also calls for a single vice presidential debate, was worked out during more than four hours of negotiations between officials of both campaigns and representatives of the commission.
Under pressure from some fellow Republicans, who had regarded his debate maneuvers as ineffective, Bush signaled late last week that he was willing to compromise.
But his decision to accept the full commission package came as a surprise.
Bush aides had indicated recently that he would accept just two commission debates, preferring a third showdown with Gore to be a less structured appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live."
"The governor is very eager to debate," Don Evans, the Bush campaign chairman, said after the talks adjourned yesterday.
"He's looking forward to a free-flowing, substantive, real and genuine discussion of all the issues."
Bush's opening gambit this month, which Gore had rejected, called for only one 90-minute debate sponsored by the bipartisan commission, which has produced every general election debate since 1988. The two others would have been one-hour debates, one each on CNN and NBC.
Critics, including the Gore campaign, accused Bush of trying to duck the commission debate schedule out of a concern that Gore is a superior debater.
Bush's plan would have limited both the length of the debates and the size of the viewing audience. Only the commission debates were likely to be broadcast on all the major networks.
The Bush forces had said they were merely looking for a variety of TV environments to stimulate voter interest. But Democrats charged that Bush was worried about being able to fill the two-minute answer period of a traditional debate.
As proposed by the commission, the first Gore-Bush debate will be held Oct. 3 in Boston, near the John F. Kennedy library on the University of Massachusetts campus.
The second will be Oct. 11, at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the third, Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.
From the outset, Gore had insisted on debating Bush under the schedule announced back in January by the debate commission. Only after that, the vice president said, would he consider other head-to-head encounters.
William M. Daley, the Gore campaign chairman, told reporters after the deal was worked out that "other issues [remain] to be decided, and we will come to conclusion on those shortly. But we've made great progress."
All the debates will feature a single moderator, as in 1996, when Jim Lehrer of PBS moderated all three debates. But the selection of a moderator or moderators for this year is among the details still to be worked out.
Former Republican Party Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, said that talks "broke down" over some details of the debates. He said time ran out before the two sides could reach an agreement on issues such as how long each candidate will be given to respond to a question.
He described the discussions as "very cordial" and predicted the final details would be worked out by the end of the week.
According to Fahrenkopf, the campaigns have agreed that one of the debates will be a classic face-off in which the candidates stand onstage together. Another would have them sit around a table with a moderator.
A "town hall" format, in which ordinary voters question the candidates, will also be used, as it was for one of the two presidential debates held in 1996.
Bush's communications director, Karen P. Hughes, said Bush's negotiators are still pushing for a "more free-flowing and more spontaneous format."
The debates won't include either Green Party nominee Ralph Nader or Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, whose popularity in the opinion polls is far below the 15 percent threshold set by the commission.
Nader's campaign called the Bush-Gore agreement "flawed and undemocratic." In a statement, it said polls have shown that a majority of Americans want to see third-party candidates included in the debates.
Politicians often say that debates "freeze" a campaign, in part because the candidates must devote much time to preparing for the event. One of the challenges facing Bush, who now calls himself the underdog in the contest, will be to persuade voters to pay attention to his candidacy in the 2 1/2 weeks left before the first debate.
The Summer Olympics, now getting under way, are another reason why both campaigns have long expected the public to pay less attention to politics during the second half of September.
Representatives of both campaigns are expected to meet again today to try to hammer out final debate details. Besides Evans, a Texas oilman and longtime friend of Bush, the Republican campaign is being represented by manager Joe Allbaugh and former Transportation Secretary Andrew Card.
The Gore team, in addition to Daley, includes Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and James Johnson, the former head of Fannie Mae, the giant mortgage provider.
The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1988 by the two major political parties. Its other co-chairman, in addition to Fahrenkopf, is Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former Democratic national chairman.