WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ever since John F. Kennedy confronted a five-o'clock-shadowed Richard Nixon in a 1960 debate, we Americans have come to expect our presidential candidates to lock horns on radio and television.
So we're uneasy that President Bush and his advisers have rejected the formula of three direct confrontations with Democrat Bill Clinton in a format with just one moderator. Don't worry -- there surely will be debates. But we must understand what the haggling is all about.
President Bush does not want a frontal one-on-one debate with Clinton. That would skew the ''discussion'' toward our sick economy, with Governor Clinton able to challenge the president again and again on his economic record. Mr. Bush doesn't want a format in which Mr. Clinton can ask him why 167,000 private payroll jobs were lost in August alone.
Mr. Bush knows that he is in a position even more vulnerable regarding the economy than Jimmy Carter was in 1980. He cannot accede to a debate format in which Mr. Clinton keeps asking him if he thinks American families are better off than they were four years ago. President Bush doesn't want any single moderator to ask him what he is going to do in the next four years to revive America's economy that he didn't do in the previous four years.
The president clearly wants a panel of several questioners, and he is shrewd to demand one. Some reporter on a large panel is going to tangle with Governor Clinton on his Vietnam war draft record, and all the seeming contradictions in the Arkansas governor's explanations of this issue. Mr. Bush can't ask if the governor really had a sexual affair with Gennifer Flowers. He has to hope that some reporter on the panel will ask. Mr. Bush cannot raise the ''threat'' of Hillary Clinton as first lady, and he figures that a single moderator may not raise it, but that someone on a panel of reporters probably would.
Mr. Clinton so far has the public-relations advantage. He needs a head-to-head exchange on the issues in order to prove that he is as knowledgeable, as responsible, as much a patriot, as Mr. Bush. So Mr. Clinton says, ''Let someone set the debate rules, and I'll be there.''
But the president's top campaign adviser, Jim Baker, knows that presidential debates aren't always won during the debating. They are won in haggling over the rules, striking one reporter off the panel for another, getting the best powder-and-paint person in the makeup room -- and most of all, wresting control of the debate agenda.
But there is political danger in all the pre-debate jousting. The candidate who is perceived as timid, unwilling to engage in rhetorical warfare, will be dismissed by millions of Americans -- especially if there are no debates. The Bush people know this, which is why I feel certain that debates will take place under circumstances that both candidates will accept as fair.
The irony is that, given the challenger's huge lead in most polls, President Bush seems to need the debates most. The reality is that Mr. Clinton needs them no less. Voters watch presidential debates searching for each candidates' knowledge, veracity, demeanor of confidence, and a lot of other things that no journalist can put into words. Voters learn the most when the challenges move from one candidate to the other, without intrusions from a gaggle of newsmen and newswomen who, like politicians, are bent on enhancing their reputations.
I hope President Bush and Governor Clinton will agree to go at it, mano a mano, and let us have a clean judgment as to who should wield the power of the presidency for four more years.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.