WASHINGTON (AP) -- White House campaigners Al Gore and George W. Bush will be debating in a month or so, and the gamesmanship has begun, as it always does. Before they face each other, their debate negotiators will argue about when, where and how.
That means some serious nitpicking before they settle, presumably on three televised debates, presumably in prime time, probably with a familiar moderator.
Presidential nominees have been arguing before debating ever since the process was revived in 1976, after a three-campaign break. Since 1988, there's been a referee, the Commission on Presidential Debates, created after two academic studies recommended that somebody set up a broker to avoid bickering about terms every fourth year.
The result was both: a broker and more bickering.
Never mind that haggling for every advantage hasn't worked before; the matters negotiated -- presumably with straight faces -- weren't the ones that turned out to have an impact on the voters.
Jimmy Carter's bargainers in 1976 wanted Gerald R. Ford to stand lower than his challenger to neutralize any height advantage, which sounds more like basketball than serious politics. They finally settled on rigging the lecterns to make Carter look taller. Nobody noticed their respective altitudes when Ford blundered by saying, and insisting, that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union, which it was.
But 12 years later, the height question was back, with Michael Dukakis gaining a mini-platform to offset the six inches George Bush had on him. No help; Bush won.
The first time vice presidential nominees debated, in 1976, Republican Bob Dole balked at a change in the order of panel questioning and, as a result, got the question that led him to blurt that all the wars of the 20th century were "Democrat wars."
Bush says he doesn't like a format in which the candidates "walk around the stage, act dramatically." With cause. That would be the town hall format, like the one in which his father suffered for glancing at his watch and saying he didn't get it, vulnerably although not inappropriately, after a woman in the audience asked a question that made no sense.
The traps are seldom those the rival negotiators foresee. When the cameras go on, the impact depends on the debaters, one on one. On that, at least, the Gore and Bush sides agree. They do not want Pat Buchanan and/or Ralph Nader crowding their debate stage. Earlier in the campaign, Gore had left open the possibility of a more than two-man debate, but that was when Buchanan seemed to pose a threat to Bush, and before Nader presented one for the Democratic ticket.
Buchanan has threatened to sue to get into the debate, a course Ross Perot tried in 1996, and lost. And the Buchanan campaign already is in court, trying to enforce his disputed claim to the nomination of the splintered Reform Party.
Nader wants in, too, of course, and he is suing to stop the debate commission from sponsoring the 2000 series because its financing includes corporate donations.
The commission has ruled that only candidates gaining at least 15 percent in an average of five national public opinion polls can get in, and neither Nader nor Buchanan is even close.
The 15 percent rule is nothing new; it dates from the campaigns in which the League of Women Voters sponsored debates, before the cost and the hassle got to be too much.
This time, the commission set guidelines, dates and sites eight months ago, before the nominations were settled. Its plan is for debates on Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis, with a vice presidential debate Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.
But once there are candidates to dispute the details, planning gets more complicated.
Gore has accepted the debate commission plan, but wants more. More has been his debate plan since he decided nearly a year ago that Bill Bradley was a Democratic threat worth meeting, and challenged his Democratic rival to weekly debates. Then he made it twice a week. They had nine in the primary campaign.
After the nominations were decided, he challenged Bush to debate him at least weekly.
Now Gore is accepting any and all invitations, even one from a conservative legal organization that keeps suing the Clinton White House. Not to mention the one from David Letterman, to appear on his late-night CBS show, perhaps on election eve. Accepting makes his point; he wants to accuse Bush of ducking debates, most of which both sides know aren't going to be held.
The Bush campaign hasn't agreed to the commission plan, only to three presidential and two vice presidential debates, details to come. Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager and one of his negotiators, said they've got 53 invitations and are considering them. Bush said he wants three prime-time TV debates and there are a lot of opportunities, not just the commission plan.
"It is unprecedented in modern times for a major party candidate to try to stiff the prime-time commission debate," Gore said.
Not quite. President Clinton stiffed one against Dole in 1996, declining one the commission had scheduled on grounds the date was too close to his annual address to the United Nations. They had two debates that year.
This time, the rival debaters are agreed on three. Eventually, they will agree on which three.
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