WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush has been digging himself into a deep political hole in the past 10 days. But by accepting the original schedule of three full-scale debates with Vice President Al Gore, the Republican candidate may have stopped the bleeding.
Debates have become not only a significant factor in presidential campaigns but perhaps the decisive one. Tens of millions of voters tune in to watch, and many of them make their final choices on the basis of what they see in these confrontation. So it is probably not a stretch to say the 2000 campaign is essentially frozen in place for the two weeks before the first debate in Boston.
For Mr. Bush, that is good news. He has fallen from 15 percentage points or more ahead in early August to even or worse today. More to the point, the pattern in the states with the most electoral votes has moved sharply toward the Democratic nominee. The vice president is now leading in Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Jersey, as well as California and New York, and either even or slightly ahead in Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
Indeed, the Texas governor's skid has been so precipitous that political professionals in both parties have been speculating among themselves about whether the Republican campaign may not be falling through the floor. This is precisely the time he needs to freeze the linebackers.
On the surface, Mr. Bush's reversal on the debate issue appears politically damaging. After haughtily rejecting the schedule of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, he is now swallowing the whole thing, even the first debate in Boston. That seems to suggest panic in the Bush organization.
So what. Most voters have not been paying close attention to the back-and-forth bickering over the debate schedule or the stories about whether the Bush campaign sent a subliminal message in a television commercial or whether Al Gore put the arm on a trial lawyer for a big contribution in 1995. Now they can tune out even more completely and watch the Olympics with the assurance that there will be three opportunities to observe the presidential candidates for 90 minutes in October.
This would not be the first time a campaign was frozen in place by such a prospect. In the first debate in 1984, for example, President Ronald Reagan seemed vague enough in his meeting with Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale to raise questions about whether the president was losing his grip. The result was that the electorate was put on hold for two weeks until the next debate gave Mr. Reagan a chance to show he still had his rhetorical fastball.
The debates are particularly important in a campaign like this one in which there have been persistent questions about the personas of both candidates.
Although his unfavorable ratings have declined rapidly in the past two weeks, the vice president has been seen through most of the campaign as a candidate who doesn't evoke much zealous support from his fellow Democrats. And Mr. Bush has yet to dispel doubts about whether he has the gravitas for the presidency. On the contrary, some of his slips in the last two weeks have seemed to reinforce those doubts.
The debates offer a special opportunity for the candidate who is least well-known to pass the threshold of credibility as a national leader and potential president. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton's performance in three debates probably was the critical factor in his defeat of President George Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot.
In that campaign, of course, there was widespread national concern about the condition of the economy and a corresponding demand for change. The result was that the audience for the three debates grew, finally reaching almost 100 million for the final debate -- more than twice the number who watched in the ho-hum Clinton boat ride against Bob Dole.
It is impossible to predict what kind of audience the debates this year will attract. There is no sense of anxiety in the electorate about either peace or prosperity, and interest in the campaign has seemed minimal since the first primaries eliminated John McCain and Bill Bradley.
But whatever the level of interest, Americans have been asked, in effect, to withhold their judgments until they see the two candid- ates face off. For George W. Bush, the alternative was too bleak to abide.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.