Let Perot Debate, Too

September 16, 1992

If there is going to be a presidential debate Friday of next week in Lansing, Mich., as the Commission on Presidential Debates has proposed, George Bush and Bill Clinton must quickly agree on the format. These things take a certain amount of advance preparation on the scene. Governor Clinton has agreed to the commission's format: the two candidates and one moderator. President Bush prefers a panel of journalists to a moderator.

In our view a true candidates' debate, with a very quiet moderator but no questioners to complicate or confuse, is the best format. But if a candidate decides he can operate press-conference style better than he can debating-society style, that's understandable. The fact of a face-to-face meeting is more important than the format. Any meeting is better than none. So we urge the candidates' representatives to come to a quick agreement that will assure that the candidates will meet.

Since 1976, presidential candidates have faced each other before the nation. These "debates" have become institutionalized. They may or may not affect voting behavior, but they do acquaint voters and non-voters about the issues facing the nation. That is extremely important this year, because the issue of the campaign -- the deficit -- has not received the attention it needs in other forms of campaign activity.

One reason it hasn't is that the one presidential candidate to straight-talk about the issue in the primaries, Paul Tsongas, was defeated, and the one presidential candidate to straight-talk about the issue outside the two-party structure, Ross Perot, became a non-candidate. Both voices have since been muted, relatively speaking.

We think Mr. Perot should have been invited to the presidential debates by the commission. He certainly meets most of the criteria the commission set for deciding which candidates to invite: He is on enough state ballots to win an electoral college victory (47 so far); he has a national organization working in his

behalf (some of his old draft organizations); adequate funding (his own), and public support that suggests a "viable candidacy" (16 percent of voters told the Washington Post-ABC Poll this past week that they would vote for him even if he remains an undeclared candidate).

The commission decided against him because he has not formally declared his candidacy. But why should that be a factor? Public non-declaration at this stage could be a tactical decision. He has never made a Sherman-like statement.

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