Fall Lineup Friction

Labor Day is around the corner, but George W. Bush and Al Gore are already debating … about how to debate, that is.

Democrat Gore favors lots of debates - and claims his GOP rival for the White House wants to duck prime-time encounters. Unlike the vice president, Republican Bush has yet to sign on to the timetable devised by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, a privately-funded panel. Instead, the Texas governor has rolled out a counterproposal.

Bush "wants to see if he can get away with some Sunday morning talk show when nobody's watching much," said Gore. "The American people have a right in this day and time to be respected with an adult, intelligent discussion of what the major issues are."

The commission has scheduled three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. But in poker terms, the Texas governor takes that blueprint and raises it one with a second vice presidential debate. And the five encounters that Bush proposes would in effect bypass the commission, since the dates and sponsors of those debates would need to be hammered out.

"Of course we are going to debate," said Bush. "There will be debates and I look forward to them."

And what about upping the number of presidential one-on-ones?

"I think three is plenty," said Bush about the number of times he thinks that he and Gore should square off.

Ari Fleischer, Bush's campaign spokesman, noted that President Clinton and Gore agreed to only two of the Commission's three proposed debates in 1996.

"This is one of the worst examples I've ever seen of Al Gore saying one thing and doing another," Fleischer said.

Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, argued the type of encounters are a sticky point for good reason.

"The Bush people want a structured debate where they can just put their guy up to give soundbites from speeches," he said. "I think they want less of a free-wheeling kind of debate than the Gore folks want."

GOP strategist Rich Galen countered the Gore camp was determined not to be satisfied with whatever move that Bush made - even if that meant agreeing to the commission's schedule up front.

"Grown-ups talk about it in a grown-up way," said Galen about the debate logistics. "People who are just interested in trying to keep the waters muddy because they have no message do it the way the Gore campaign does it."

Both strategists found common ground on Gore and Bush's respective chances in whatever debates that do occur. Thanks to ferociously besting Ross Perot and Jack Kemp in the past, Gore possesses the aura of a Super Debater. And that reputation in turn underscores nagging concerns about whether Bush is a lightweight who's just not ready for prime time.

And yet, Democrat Fenn predicted Bush "will be scripted and I think he'll do jut fine. I think this notion that Gore's such a great debater and he's gonna roll over George Bush is sort of nonsense."

As for Gore, Republican Galen argued the vice president may have to "score a knockout in the first round of the first debate or people are gonna say, 'He failed.' Bush, because of his lowered expectations in these debates, has a much easier hill to climb as he goes through this process."

At this point, the commission's criteria of a 15 percent threshold in five national polls would shut out two other candidates: Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Neither the Green Party nominee nor the Reform Party contender comes close to that figure in the latest round of polls - and each is challenging the commission in court. So far, Bush and Gore have avoided answering whether the commission's debates should include either Nader or Buchanan or both.

"I suspect if you took a poll … they'd say, sure, let all four guys in," said Galen.

The commission's presidential debates are set for October 3 in Boston, October 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and October 17 in St. Louis. Its vice presidential debate is scheduled for Octuber 5 in Danville, Ky. If that lineup holds, it will be sandwiched between two huge prime-time viewing events: the Olympics, which run from mid-September until early October in Sydney, Australia - and the World Series, which happens in late October.