Two-Stepping Over Debates

clockwise from top left: Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson, Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee
With Democrat Al Gore formally on board for three presidential debates this fall, advisers for Republican George W. Bush are meeting with debate organizers and major TV network executives.

The debates - all set for October, all to be nationally televised in prime-time - are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a privately-funded bipartisan panel.

On Wednesday, Bush denied he was trying to avoid televised face-offs with the vice president, saying he would welcome prime-time debates.

"I intend to (debate) - you bet," Bush said during a live television and online interview with CNN. "I look forward to the debates."

Bush has accepted no invitations but said he would welcome prime-time sessions, although not necessarily the ones endorsed by Gore.

"The vice president said, 'I'll debate him anytime, anywhere, anyplace.' We take him at his word," said Bush. "We will pick and choose the venues that enable us both to be able to discuss what we want to do should either of us become the president."

In endorsing the commission's debates, Gore campaign chair Bill Daley wrote the panel on Tuesday that its forums would offer "the best opportunity for the most Americans to see the presidential candidates in the most effective forum to debate their views."

Bush's reluctance to agree to the commission's debates has prompted the Gore camp to claim that the Texas governor wants to meet only during off-peak viewing times under less than traditionally rigorous formats.

Over the next three days, Bush aides will meet with major TV network executives and the commission representatives to hammer out times, places and formats for the presidential debates. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said top advisers Joe Allbaugh, Andrew Card, and Don Evans would be in Washington on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to discuss scenarios with the debate organizers as well as officials from CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS.

"When they discuss with these groups the formats, one of the conditions they'll discuss is how to share the debates as widely as possible for all the networks to use," Fleischer said Tuesday.

Memorable Debate Lines

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."
Pres. Gerald Ford
- October 6, 1976

"There you go again."
Ronald Reagan
to Pres. Jimmy Carter
- October 28, 1980

"I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Pres. Ronald Reagan
on Walter Mondale
- October 7, 1984

"Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen
to Sen. Dan Quayle
- October 5, 1988

B>"And I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock."
Adm. James Stockwell
- October 13, 1992

"Well, he's better off than he was four years ago."
Sen. Bob Dole
on President Clinton
- October 6, 1996

After Bush aides meet with potential sponsors, Bush will present his debate schedule, a counteroffer to Gore's. If tradition holds, it may take several weeks of negotiations to reach an agreement over debate formats.

"George Bush is trying to do everything he can to avoid prime-time presidential debates that will be seen on all three networks," Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani charged.

Bush has privately grumbled to associates that the commission debates which that his father, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot participated in during the 1992 campaign were "gimmicky" and prone to highlighting "one-liners" over substance. In particular, Bush is said to be wary of the town hall format.

In addition, Bush has also proposed two vice presidential debates, instead of the commission's recommended lone face-off between Democrat Joseph Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney.

The Gore camp's Daley endorsed that proposal and encouraged the commission to schedule an additional forum for the running mates.

On whether third party candidates like Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan will be invited, Daley's letter says Gore approves debates featuring "major candidates certified by the Commission."

Under the commission's rules, a candidate can be certified only if he or she is on the ballot in enough states to be able to win, and registers at least 15 percent in several national polls. Nader is currently on the ballot in 20 states, and Buchanan in 40, according to their campaign Web sites. Neither draws double-digit support in any major poll.

The first presidential debate is scheduled for Tuesday, October 3, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The second match is on Wednesday, October 11, at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., with the finale on Tuesday, October 17, at Washington University in St. Louis.

The commission has slated a vice presidential debate for Thursday, October 5, at Centre College in Danville, Ky. It's not clear where the Bush-proposed, second Veep debate would be held or when, but the commission has named Madison, Wis. and St. Petersburg, Fla. as possible sites.

Two vice-presidential debates would be a first. Since the first in 1976, there has never been more than one. In 1980, there weren't any.

The idea of having three presidential debates is also rare. That occurred only in 1976 and 1992.

But according to the commission, presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon. None occurred prior to 1948, the first being a debate between Republican candidates Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen on the issue of outlawing the Communist Party.

In 1956, Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver debated during the Floridprimary campaign.

In 1960, the four debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were the first regular meetings of opponents, and the last until 1976.

Third party candidates have participated in five of the 19 debates since 1976. Independent John Anderson met Ronald Reagan one-on-one in one of 1980's two debates, and Reform Party candidates were included in all four 1992 debates.