Parties grapple over details of debates Bush, Clinton teams jockey for leverage

September 21, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In this presidential election season, as in every one since 1976, a sort of tribal dance is being performed by the two major-party candidates over the question of debates.

How many should there be, when and under what format? And as in previous election years, threats of having none are tossed back and forth. But in the end differences have been worked out, and this year is expected to be no exception.

The rejection by the Bush-Quayle campaign of dates and a format proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, and the Clinton-Gore team's subsequent re-jection of a Bush-Quayle deadline tonegotiate changes, are part of strategic jockeying on both sides. Commission sources say they fully anticipate that the two campaigns will get together.

"Both campaigns want them," says one party to the tribal dance, speaking anonymously. The Bush-Quayle rejection of the commission's proposal for three 90-minute presidential debates and one 90-minute vice-presidential debate conducted by a single moderator repeats the 1988 strategy of White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III when he also handled debate negotiations for George Bush.

Then as now, this source recalls, "Baker blew past the production date for the first debate [proposed for Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich.] and effectively got it down to two and one. Now he will try to get press panels [asking the questions], but he may be willing to split," having one presidential debate with a moderator only and the second debate with a panel. The commission has proposed debates on Oct. 4 in San Diego and on Oct. 15 in Richmond, Va.

Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign is probably crying crocodile tears over the scrapping of the first debate, because Mr. Clinton can now accuse Mr. Bush of ducking. The Democratic nominee is scheduled to go to East Lansing Tuesday for a town hall meeting that will give him an ideal chance to make that point. But Mickey Kantor, the Clinton campaign chairman, says there is no plan to "debate an empty chair," an old gimmick that has become shopworn.

But the Clinton campaign is running an ad on Michigan radio stations informing voters that Mr. Clinton will be in the state tomorrow and that Mr. Bush won't.

"The American people have a lot of questions," the narrator says. Bill Clinton is ready to answer them. So why won't George Bush debate? He says he doesn't like the rules. Bush says he wants a panel of reporters to ask the questions instead of having an open exchange among the candidates. If you believe the debate about America's future should begin next Tuesday in Michigan, call the Bush-Quayle headquarters." The narrator then provides the phone number.

Mr. Kantor has noted that the Clinton campaign accepted the commission's proposals in full months ago and said that if the Bush campaign wants to negotiate, it should do so in public.

Janet Brown, staff director of the bipartisan commission, says the commission will be happy to chair such a meeting, but Mr. Baker may want to go head-to-head with Mr. Kantor, as he did with Paul Brountas, the chief debate negotiator for Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

Many insiders in both campaigns felt Mr. Baker took Mr. Brountas to the cleaners then, getting most of the concessions he wanted, including the use of a panel of reporters.

While Mr. Baker, as a good political poker player, never shows the cards he's holding, speculation is he figures that there will be fewer total questions for Mr. Bush to answer with a panel asking them and that the reporters can ask Mr. Clinton the hard personal questions rather than the president.

Mr. Clinton himself observed that the commission noted after studying the 1988 debates that "if you were very clever and you prepared for it and you thought about one or two lines to zing your opponent with, you'd never have to answer any real questions."

Mr. Kantor says he has no qualms about negotiating with Mr. Baker. If you don't like what is proposed, he says, "you can just say no." With his candidate comfortably ahead in the polls, that is an option he can afford that most challengers to incumbent presidents can't. But it is still regarded as a boost for a challenger to be seen on the same stage confronting an incumbent.

The next debate proposed by the commission is for Sept. 29 between Vice President Dan Quayle and Democratic running mate Al Gore in Louisville, Ky. But Ms. Brown notes that the commission will need a go-ahead by Wednesday in order to make all production arrangements in time. There's a question whether the Bush campaign will want the controversial Mr. Quayle to be its leadoff hitter, considering his weak performance in 1988 against Sen. Lloyd "You're no Jack Kennedy" Bentsen.

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