RICHMOND, Va. -- Having tried three different formats in the two presidential and one vice presidential debates, the Bush and Clinton campaigns have agreed to a mix for the third and final presidential confrontation in East Lansing, Mich., tonight. Half of the 90 minutes will have a press panel asking questions and half will go with a single moderator.
This compromise between George Bush, who prefers the first format, and Bill Clinton and the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, who pitched for the second, rules out the third approach -- the direct questioning of the candidates by randomly selected voters as seen in Thursday night's presidential debate here. In a way, it's too bad.
The decision on the format for the final debate was made before those voters had their chance to demonstrate that they could pose queries that would elicit substantive responses. Going in, the expectation of even the debate organizers was that this format was risky at best. Would the voters toss up only softball questions, as had happened often when the "town meeting" format was used in the primaries? Most of the wise guys, including us, thought that would be the result.
Instead, the selected voters not only asked pertinent questions about important issues of the day but, in effect, they ordered the candidates to cut out the mudslinging about personalities and conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the office they are seeking.
President Bush particularly seemed to back off, disappointing Republicans who had been charged up by Vice President Dan Quayle's aggressive attacks on Clinton's character and trustworthiness in his debate with Al Gore and Ross Perot's running mate, James Stockdale.
That downshifting by Bush benefited Clinton, who was able to keep the focus of the discussion on what he called "the failed economic theory" of the Reagan-Bush years. Clinton, who proposed the "town meeting" format after having used it several times during the Democratic primaries, was notably relaxed and comfortable with it, and the informality seemed to erode further Bush's advantage as the incumbent.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the admonition of the voters to stay off the low road will continue to rein in the candidates in the final confrontation. With Clinton's lead basically undiminished, the pressure will be even greater on the president to take the gloves off.
His failure in his first two debates to come up with anything new in the way of a positive pitch for votes makes it unlikely that he will be able to do so in the third one. His disclosure that he will ask his favorite political magician, James Baker, to take over the shaping of a new second-term domestic agenda has only accentuated in the most embarrassing way his glaring lack of leadership on the domestic front.
So you can look for more concentration from Bush on questions of Clinton's character, trustworthiness and leadership in the final debate. The only question is whether he will adopt the pit-Pekingese style of Quayle, at the risk of surrendering even more of the advantage that being president gives him.
Under the format for the final debate, it's not likely that either the press panelists or the single moderator will take it upon themselves to scold Bush, Clinton and Perot to knock off the personal stuff. In any event, the George Bush of 1992 as president has been a far cry so far from the slashing Bush of 1988 against Michael Dukakis.
When Bush the other night finally addressed Clinton's first-debate accusation that he was guilty of McCarthyism unlike his father, Sen. Prescott Bush, who had opposed Joe McCarthy in the Senate, the president delivered this rejoinder:
"I remember something my dad told me -- I was 18 years old going to Penn Station to go on into the Navy -- and he said write your mother, which I faithfully did; he said serve your country -- my father was an honor, duty and country man; and he said tell the truth. And I've tried to do that in public life, all through it. That says something about character."
Take that, Bill Clinton. If that is the kind of blow Bush intends to rain down on the Arkansas governor in the final debate to turn the election around, the president might better stay home.