Bush demands '88 terms for debate with Clinton

September 15, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered yesterday to debate Democrat Bill Clinton under the same terms his campaign negotiated for the 1988 election or not at all, suggesting that he does not consider a face-to-face confrontation essential.

The Bush offer would mean two debates instead of the three proposed by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates and would feature reporters asking questions rather than the candidates talking to each other directly with a just a moderator to control the clock.

The take-it-or-leave-it tactic appears to be the opening bid by the White House mastermind, James A. Baker III, to prompt the Clinton campaign into negotiating new ground rules rather than accepting the terms proposed by the commission.

The Bush campaign said that if it did not receive an answer "in the affirmative" by Friday, it would assume Mr. Clinton did "not wish to debate."

With polls showing the president trailing Mr. Clinton, the debates could have an enormous impact on the outcome of the contest. '' Thus, each side is determined to enter them under the most advantageous terms.

The Clinton campaign, which has endorsed the commission proposal and announced it would not negotiate directly with the Bush camp on new ground rules, had no immediate response to yesterday's offer.

Instead, a Clinton strategist, Paul Begala, challenged Mr. Bush to appear in East Lansing, Mich., Sept. 22, the date set by the commission for the first debate.

"Tell him to show up Sept. 22 in East Lansing and we'll debate him then," Mr. Begala said on CNN. "They're just going to have to decide if they want to try to fight the battles of the past or if they want to agree the way we have to the bipartisan commission's appeal for debates."

L He said Mr. Clinton would be in East Lansing no matter what.

Mr. Bush's offer was contained in a letter yesterday to the Clinton campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, from Robert M. Teeter, chairman of the Bush re-election effort.

Mr. Teeter argued against accepting the commission's proposal because "the candidates themselves should determine the criteria upon which they debate."

The commission was established in 1987 for the purpose of setting up debate rules and is headed by two former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties, Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk.

But Mr. Teeter wrote: "No one organization or group should be able to arrogate unto itself the authority to unilaterally make decisions that can be so critical to the final election result."

Mr. Bush and his surrogates have repeatedly assured interviewers that he will participate in debates this year once the terms are arranged.

But Mr. Teeter noted: "Of course, debates are not the only way candidates get their message to the public. We are not unmindful that debates are already occurring between the two candidates on a day-to-day basis on a wide variety of issues."

He said that this process would continue "whether face-to-face debates are actually held or not."

The 1988 presidential debates, also sponsored by the commission, were held after Mr. Baker and representatives of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis struck a bargain on the ground rules.

The commission said that it was prepared to accept the same arrangement again.

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