THE Bush campaign's efforts to limit presidential debates with Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis to two instead of three may appear to bespeak a lack of confidence in George Bush's debating skills. With the dates more or less set - one in the midst of the Olympics and the other squeezed in around American League baseball playoffs - the situation is even more absurd. Lowering expectations has been raised to high art this year, by both campaigns. True, the unscripted Bush has proved capable, so far unlike his opponent, of verbal gaffes. But the vice-president's real reason for wanting to hold the debates under a bushel is that he doesn't want to give his less well-known challenger extra exposure. If there is a President Dukakis seeking reelection in 1992, we can expect him to act similarly.
For now, Dukakis's best approach might be to hold two and a half debates: two with Bush, and one on his own, a political monologue if need be, in default of real dialogue.
He needs to get beyond the tyranny of the sound bite and the 30-second spot. Dukakis needs to talk with the reporters, and talk into the television cameras and communicate clearly to the American people what his agenda really is.
During the last few weeks, George Bush has extracted the silver foot from his mouth. Even against the backdrop of continuing controversy over his running mate, Dan Quayle, the vice-president is making inroads into areas where the Democrats were ahead just recently. As the Dukakis campaign is obviously aware, their man can no longer afford to run on competence alone. ``Ideology'' - almost a pejorative at this point - may not be needed, but a clear program surely is.