Commission aims to tighten grip on presidential debates


WASHINGTON -- With no incumbent running in 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates expects there will be debates the next time around, and also hopes that the commission will have a firmer hand on organizing them.

Paul Kirk, the former Democratic National Chairman who is co-chairman of the commission, says the panel will be stipulating to all prospective nominees well in advance how, when and where the debates will be conducted, and asserting a lead role for the commission in debate negotiations.

To date, the commission has decided which candidates shall participate and has recommended dates and places. But, as a practical matter, the major-party nominees have then shoved the commission aside and worked out the details between themselves, to the commission's consternation.

The debates have already approached institutional status, having now been conducted in the last six presidential elections going back to Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter in 1976. But with sitting presidents seeking another term in each of the six except 1988 (George Bush vs. Michael Dukakis), there has always been the threat that the incumbent would refuse, denying his challenger equal footing before the huge television audience.

Even when the incumbent has agreed, a tortuous "debate over debates" has always ensued over how many there should be and when and where they should be held. That argument has in itself become a source of news stories as one or the other major-party nominee is accused of dragging his feet.

Chicken George

In 1992, incumbent George Bush was damaged by that impression, especially when the forces of Bill Clinton dramatized Mr. Bush's ducking by confronting him at his rallies with Clinton supporters dressed as chickens and holding signs that read: "Chicken George."

But, as panelists noted the other day at a commission seminar on past presidential debates and plans for the year 2000, candidates recognize how critical the debates are and have always insisted on fighting for arrangements most advantageous themselves. James A. Baker, the Bush and Reagan political strategist, was acknowledged as the master negotiator in striking debate deals.

Failure to have a firmer handle on debate arrangements has always been a matter of great frustration to organizers of the presidential debates.

In 1988, the sponsoring League of Women Voters threw up its hands after trying to impose debate conditions on the Bush and Dukakis strategists. The commission had to take over on a crash basis and inherited the task thereafter.

The idea of telling prospective candidates -- not simply those of the major parties but also third-party candidates or independents -- what conditions will apply is designed to reduce not eliminate the squabbling and the uncertainty of debates, the number of them, and the dates, places and ground rules under which they will be held in 2000.

Mr. Kirk acknowledges that the major-party candidates will always strive to cut the best deal they can between each other, with the candidate trailing in the polls and hence, theoretically at least, needing the debates more being at a disadvantage in any negotiations. But he says that public expectations and desire for debates will make it very difficult now for any candidate to duck them, and harder for them to impose conditions, especially with no incumbent running in 2000.

Debate scrapped

In 1996, the commission set the first Clinton-Dole debate for September in St. Louis but had to scrap it -- and complex logistics already established -- when the Clinton campaign flatly refused the early date. Panelists at the commission seminar warned that televised sports events like the World Series, now running into late October, and Monday Night Football must be taken into consideration if the optimum audience is to be attracted.

One group that isn't concerned about details as much as getting invited at all is the third parties and independents, shut out in 1996 on the basis of Commission criteria that they did not have a "realistic" chance of being elected. Clay Mulford, lawyer for Ross Perot, argued that the Commission didn't properly apply its own criteria in keeping Mr. Perot out of the 1996 debates.

With the Perot Reform Party continuing organizing efforts and others such as the Libertarian and Natural Law parties also gaining strength, the commission will be under added pressure in 2000 if it sticks to the narrow criteria used in 1996 that kept them on the outside looking in.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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