Bush challenges Clinton to four debates Democrat says he won't budge on ground rules

September 30, 1992|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a go-for-broke overture, President Bush challenged Bill Clinton to meet him in debates on the last four Sunday nights of the election campaign and also offered to compromise on their disputes over the debate format.

"If Gov. Clinton is serious about debates, he will accept this challenge. . . . Let's get it on," the president said in a campaign speech to students at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.

Adding another element to a proposal that could change the dynamics of the last month of the presidential race, Mr. Bush said he would be "pleased" to have Ross Perot included in the debates if the independent candidate decides to resume active campaigning.

The Democratic front-runner, caught off guard by the Bush offer, suggested testily that he would participate only if the debates were conducted under the auspices of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Mr. Bush has refused to deal with the commission.

"We ought to start this Sunday and [have] another on the 15th," as the commission has proposed, Mr. Clinton told reporters traveling with him in Columbus, Ohio. He said he was willing to discuss additional dates but that Mr. Bush would have to propose them through the commission.

Republican commission co-chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and his Democratic counterpart, Paul G. Kirk Jr., said in a statement last night that "we welcome the president's proposal and are pleased with the response of Gov. Clinton. It appears that the JTC American people will indeed have an opportunity to see the candidates for president and vice president face each other in debates in this critical election year."

The co-chairmen said the commission looks forward to meeting with both campaigns to work on details of scheduling and format.

But White House spokeswoman Judy Smith said Mr. Bush remains unwilling to negotiate through the commission.

Mr. Clinton called the Bush proposal a "last-minute deal" because the president "got pounded" for failing to agree to the first proposed debates.

The Bush challenge had all the earmarks of the sort of "Hail Mary" play that many analysts believe to be the president's only hope of reviving his stalled campaign.

It is considered a risky venture to expose Mr. Bush to four debates with Mr. Clinton, whom Bush campaign officials believe to be a better speaker and who will also benefit from a boost in stature by appearing on the same stage with the president.

Until yesterday, it had begun to appear that top Bush aides, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and campaign manager Robert M. Teeter, were content to let the stalemate over disputes in the debate format continue indefinitely.

But with less than five weeks to go before the Nov. 3 election, the president continues to trail his challenger by at least 10 percentage points in most national polls.

And despite a variety of new themes and tactics, Mr. Bush has been unable to attract support beyond his conservative, Republican base, which amounts to about 42 percent of the voters.

Four televised debates continuing until two nights before the election would change the contest into a truly national race, and provide plenty of opportunity for the front-runner to stumble in full public view.

Mr. Bush has always said he wanted to debate, but he has objected to the format proposed by the commission, which calls for a single moderator rather than a panel of reporters.

In his proposal yesterday, the president suggested that two of the debates involve a single moderator and the other two a panel.

Mr. Bush also advocated two vice presidential debates between incumbent Dan Quayle and the Democratic nominee, Sen. Al Gore, under the same rules -- one with a single moderator and one with a panel.

The Bush proposal may now put the onus for failing to debate on Mr. Clinton.

For more than a week Clinton supporters have been showing up a Bush rallies in chicken costumes holding placards that charge the president is afraid to face his challenger. Now, the Democrat may seem to be the hold-out if he refuses to come to terms with the president.

The Arkansas governor's initial response to the Bush bombshell indicated that it at least succeeded in putting him on the defensive.

He told reporters that Mr. Bush's proposed Sunday schedule would conflict with World Series baseball championship games that the commission had been trying to avoid.

"If you do just Sunday debates, you are going to run into that," he said. "So what I think we ought to do is, let's do one Sunday, let's do one on the 15th, and then let's talk to the debate commission about what else ought to be done."

Meanwhile, Clinton advisers were putting out the word that any agreement by the president to deal with the bipartisan commission would amount to "capitulation."

Clinton aide Paul Begala insisted the Bush proposal be put through the commission "because it's in the public interest."

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