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Dukakis, Bush to square off, get closer on details. But as debate debate goes on, some experts dispute usefulness

By Donald L. RheemStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1988



Washington

The debate over the debates is over - almost. The chairmen of the Bush and Dukakis campaigns announced yesterday that the first of two scheduled presidential debates will be held Sept. 25 in Winston-Salem, N.C. A second debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis will be on Oct. 13 or 14, and vice-presidential nominees Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen will face off during the week of Oct. 3. Sites for the second two debates have not been determined.

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Details regarding the format, staging, and length of the debates are still under negotiation, said Bush campaign chairman James Baker III and his counterpart in the Dukakis camp, Paul Brountas.

The campaign leaders also agreed that one of the presidential debates will be sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the other one by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, established by the two major parties last year. The league, which has sponsored debates in recent presidential election, and the commission have been jousting for the right to host the debates.

``Debates are high risk events,'' says White House pollster Richard Wirthlin. ``If you put a high premium on controlling the course of the campaign then you minimize the debates, as much as you can.''

This is what the Dukakis camp has accused George Bush's handlers of doing. Mr. Baker's insistence that the debates be held between Sept. 25 and Oct. 17 is simply an attempt to lessen their impact, Dukakis officials say.

Both the Democratic nominee and the television networks have complained that those dates pit the debates against the Olympics and the World Series.

The Bush campaign has been trying to lower expectations of the vice-president's performance in the debates. Mr. Bush said earlier this week that he had ``respect for [Dukakis] as a debater. ... I think he is very good, probably far better than I am.'' Senior aides on the Bush campaign have been saying for weeks that Mr. Dukakis is a better debater, all in an effort to position their candidate for positive reviews should Bush do anything short of flop.

``There is a concern [among Bush people] that Dukakis will get the better of the debates,'' says Richard Brody, a political scientist at Stanford University. ``Either that or Jim Baker is making sure that, no matter what happens, it isn't going to be consequential.''

There is some dispute among political analysts about what such debates accomplish. Does the public really learn anything about the candidates? Do they help voters make educated decisions about who should be the next ``leader of the free world?''

``I don't think it has been demonstrated that there is very much importance to debates,'' says Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. ``I don't think they are going to be determinative of outcomes and it's very rare that people learn anything about candidates from the debates.''

Professor Brody agrees: ``The debates are not full of content, they are primarily a style show,'' he says.

But political scientist Jarol Manheim does see value in debates, despite their shortcomings.

``People learn what kind of people they are voting for. They learn about the character of the individuals, they learn about personality quirks ... about who can deal with pressure ... about who can think on their feet ... about who is a nice person and who is not.''

The problem with debates, Professor Polsby says, is that voters don't learn much that is translatable into how a candidate will act as president. He blames the format, but he says more useful format also would offer more risk to the nominees.

Political analysts agree that debates have the most impact on people whose support for a candidate is weak or who are truly undecided. With so many voters this year unable to make up their minds, some observers say the debates may carry more significance than usual.

``It's not that the debates are earth-shattering events in themselves,'' says Mr. Manheim, director of political communications at George Washington University, ``but that they might come along at a time when anything could make just enough difference to matter.''