The debate on debates has begun

September 13, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - With the two major party conventions over, now comes the debate over debates, that quadrennial hassle among the corner men for the presidential nominees for advantages large and small in the critical face-offs that could well decide the outcome of the election.

The private Commission on Presidential Debates has proposed three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, but the. Bush campaign reportedly is expected to insist on only two between the incumbent and Democratic nominee John Kerry.

The first proposed date is Sept. 30 at the University of Miami, and President Bush is likely to agree to that one because of the importance of Florida in the election and because his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, has been pushing for it with the commission. The other proposed presidential debates are at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8 and at Arizona State University in Tempe on Oct. 13.

The St. Louis date is considered the most vulnerable, in part because it is scheduled to use a town meeting format with questions from undecided voters. That format is considered the most risky for candidates. It proved to be disastrous for Mr. Bush's father in his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot at the University of Richmond. The senior Mr. Bush came off as flustered and uncertain, at one point late in the debate glancing at his watch as if he couldn't wait for it to be over.

As usual, the candidates have called on political heavyweights to lead the debate over debates - former Secretary of State James A. Baker III for Mr. Bush and Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan for Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Baker is an old hand at the chore, having represented Republican presidential nominees Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush in four elections and getting conditions favorable to each every time.

Mr. Jordan is best known in political circles as a close friend to Mr. Clinton who got job offers for Monica Lewinsky during the sex scandal and was a key adviser to Mr. Clinton during his impeachment woes.

This year's debates will mark the eighth consecutive presidential campaign in which they have been held on national television. The tradition began with the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which in 1960 introduced a forceful and vigorous John F. Kennedy to many voters alongside a haggard Richard M. Nixon and changed the odds in that campaign.

In fact, the first debate was deemed so decisive that in the next three presidential campaigns, the frontrunner - Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 against Barry Goldwater and Mr. Nixon in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey and in 1972 against George McGovern - ducked all proposed debates. But in 1976, incumbent Gerald Ford, trailing in the polls, agreed to take on challenger Jimmy Carter, to his ultimate regret when he erroneously denied that Poland was under Soviet domination.

Thereafter, public pressures persuaded the party nominees to debate each election year, but their agents regularly squabbled over format, dates, locations, moderators and panels, and even the physical layout of the set.

In 2000, the Bush campaign deftly played the expectations game against seasoned debater Al Gore, not challenging assertions about the Texas governor's lack of experience on the national scene and in foreign policy. He was unwittingly abetted by a sometimes patronizing, sometime contemptuous Mr. Gore, especially in their foreign policy debate, in which the vice president sighed and rolled his eyes to the ceiling at some of Mr. Bush's responses - actions not missed by TV's relentless eye.

Mr. Kerry months ago agreed to the commission's plans and even sought more debates. Mr. Bush early on said he would debate, but his strategists have been silent on the details. In an election both sides have repeatedly touted as the most important in anyone's lifetime, it's not the occasion for gamesmanship and cutting back on voters' access to the thinking of the candidates. But the debates have become so important that the hassling over where, when and how probably can't be avoided.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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