One person familiar with the debate negotiations said late Sunday that the two sides have tentatively agreed to hold three presidential debates during a two-week period beginning Sept. 30. The Bush campaign denied there was any deal. The election is Nov. 2.
"No deal has been reached. Reports of a tentative agreement — I don't even know what that means — are false," said Nicolle Devenish, communications director for the Bush campaign.
Details of the debates were being negotiated by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III for Mr. Bush and attorney Vernon Jordan for Kerry. It was not clear when any agreement would be announced.
A person familiar with the debate negotiations said Sunday there was a tentative deal for three debates but that some details were still being worked out. The person spoke on condition of anonymity since the agreement is not final. But Devenish said Baker had told his staff there was not a deal.
The tentative agreement also calls for one vice presidential debate on Oct. 5 between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
The source said the two campaigns have agreed on the dates and sites proposed by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida; Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis; and Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
The co-chairmen of the debate commission told representatives for Mr. Bush and Kerry on Wednesday that they must act immediately to finalize details for the debates, with the first only two weeks away.
The Kerry campaign agreed last month to the commission's proposal for venues, dates and moderators for three debates involving the presidential candidates and one for the vice presidential candidates. However, the Bush campaign would not commit to the proposal.
With a guaranteed television audience of tens of millions of people, the debates could have a major impact because of the closeness of the race and the voters who still count themselves as undecided.
In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of those surveyed said the debates would matter in deciding how they would vote. Some 68 percent said their minds were already made up.
Those undecided voters could make a huge difference.
In 2000, Mr. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore debated three times in 90-minute sessions in October. According to a Nielsen survey, 46.6 million people watched the first debate between Mr. Bush and Gore. The second and third debates drew audiences of 37.6 million, and 37.7 million, respectively. The lone vice presidential debate was viewed by more than 28 million people.
The commission has named PBS anchor Jim Lehrer the moderator for the first presidential debate. His colleague Gwen Ifill would run the vice presidential debate, while ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer chair the remaining presidential debates.