Monkey wrench again thrown into the debates ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 02, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The Bush campaign's sudden switch fro balking at debate formats to offering more debates than anyone was asking for was, in a real sense, a recognition that the Clinton campaign was becoming a runaway train that somehow had to be slowed.

The Bush proposal of four presidential and two vice-presidential debates in the impossibly short period of three weeks was a public-relations gambit, not a serious offer. It was designed first of all to stop the bleeding being inflicted on the reluctant president by Bill Clinton's taunts about debating, and by the growing number of his backers in chicken costumes showing up at Bush rallies.

Just as important, the proposal's objective was to change the dynamic of a campaign in which the raising of various issues against Clinton was failing to make a serious dent in the developing perception that Bush was a gone goose.

From the moment the president made his surprise debate offer in Clarksville, Tenn., the other day, voters were obliged to take a fresh look at the whole campaign. Thus the proposal, while clearly disingenuous, was politically clever at the same time. At last the celebrated political genius of the Republican Party, James Baker, had begun to earn his paycheck.

The move was reminiscent of a caper pulled by an old Baker rival in the 1976 presidential campaign, when Baker was the chief delegate hunter for President Gerald Ford. Going into the Republican convention in Kansas City, Ford appeared to have enough or nearly enough delegates to clinch the nomination. If his sole surviving opponent, Ronald Reagan, was to have any chance at all to overtake him at the convention, something had to be done to muddy the picture of Ford inevitably going over the top.

The Reagan campaign manager, John Sears, had a brainstorm. He struck on the idea of having Reagan name his running mate in advance of the convention and then pressuring Ford to do the same. Sears chose Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, regarded as a maverick liberal, and got Reagan to accept him. The hope was to pry away Pennsylvania delegates from Ford, lTC confuse the delegate counts that were going on, and give Reagan time to stage a comeback before the convention roll call.

The move created an uproar in Republican ranks, and Sears kept it going by forcing a floor fight over a resolution that would have obliged Ford also to name his vice-presidential candidate. The hope there was that whomever Ford picked, some Republican delegates would be unhappy and might switch to Reagan in what was then a very volatile political atmosphere. In the end, though, the resolution failed and Ford sailed on to the nomination.

Four years later, Baker -- now campaign manager for his old Texas friend George Bush -- was on the receiving end when Sears in behalf of Reagan threw another monkey wrench into the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, at a time when Bush was riding high. Bush had just upset Reagan in the Iowa precinct caucuses and was trying to close the lid on the Californian in the New Hampshire primary, and again Sears sprung a surprise.

A two-man debate had been scheduled between Reagan and Bush with Reagan agreeing to pay the costs. The Federal Election Commission had barred a local newspaper from sponsoring such an event that excluded the five other Republican candidates then in the field. Without consulting the Bush campaign, on the day of the debate Sears invited the other five. When they showed up that night, Bush sat stonily by as Reagan defended their right to participate. And although they finally left the debate table without doing so, Bush was marked as the villain of the piece and never recovered.

Baker in proposing more debates than he knew were unlikely to be accepted was likewise taking an action designed to change the dynamic of the campaign and put the ball in Clinton's court. In that limited objective it succeeded. But it is still up to Bush himself, and his television ads about to bombard the voters, to stop the speeding Clinton train before Nov. 3.

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