Rules for the debates remain up in the air ON POLITICS



EAST LANSING, Mich. -- With the completion of the debate phase of the presidential campaign here on the Michigan State campus, one political chessboard can be put away for another four years. Once again, the candidates and not any third party such as the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates made the critical moves that determined when and how the debates would be conducted, and how many.

Unless legislation is passed by 1996 requiring presidential debates, and that's not likely, the same maneuvering will take place again in four years, assuming that each of the major-party nominees chooses to debate at all. But with the precedent of debates in the last five presidential elections, it will be hard for either candidate to say no without risking the wrath, or at least the ridicule, of the electorate.

Through most of September, when President Bush was dragging his feet on the question of debates, Gov. Bill Clinton made the most of the situation, chiding the president for his unwillingness to accept the proposals of the bipartisan commission for three presidential and one vice presidential debate, each with a single moderator.

At Bush rallies, Clinton supporters in chicken suits began showing up to mock the president, and here in Michigan particularly Bush took a heavy editorial pounding the day after Clinton spoke at Michigan State on the date the commission had recommended for the first debate.

There never was much doubt that the president eventually would agree to debate, for the simple reason that he was far behind in the polls and had little choice. But it was clear he always wanted no debates in September and took the simple course of objecting to the recommended format as a means to stall.

When he finally decided to move and proposed a total of six debates, it was a transparent attempt to have voters think he was confidently taking the offensive in the matter. There never was any possibility, however, that there would be that many confrontations in the shortened period left before the election.

As for the format, the president's de facto campaign manager, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, was known to favor a press panel. The more people involved, the more diffused the debate figured to be, with less likelihood of total focus on the single issue that most plagued the president -- his record on the economy.

Indeed, that proved to be the case in the first debate, in which more than 15 different topics were raised over the course of 90 minutes.

Clinton preferred a single moderator because he wanted the most direct confrontation with Bush he could get, obviously for the same reason -- so he would have his best chance to zero in on Bush's domestic record. (In all this, Ross Perot was a bystander, not invited to the negotiations but only to the debates, and then so as not to alienate Perot supporters each of the major-party nominees hoped to win over.)

The surprise in the whole package was the audience participation in the second presidential debate, a Clinton proposal, and it turned out to be the most deft and significant element in the entire debate series.

It was in that debate in Richmond, Va., that two questioners in effect scolded the candidates for mudslinging and excessive focus on personalities -- something that neither a panel of reporters nor a single moderator would have dared to do, knowing that any such behavior would go beyond their role. But it was entirely within the rights of average voters fed up with the tone of the campaign to order the candidates to get off the low road, or else.

That admonition went a long way toward cutting the legs out from under Bush's central strategy -- to tear down Clinton the way he brought down Michael Dukakis in 1988. The president did not abandon that strategy after the Richmond admonitions, but he clearly was inhibited by them, and Clinton pointedly reminded him of them in the third debate.

Four years from now, the commission probably will try again to set the rules for debates. The experience of 1992 will show that the mix finally settled on worked pretty well, and that audience participation was an experiment well worth including next time. But once again, the candidates' own strategic needs are likely to have the final say.

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