FOR most voters, the debate over debates - the haggling over when and how President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton will face off - seldom breaks through the campaign static.
But the debates are arguably the highest-stakes events in the general-election campaign.
Of the 10 most-heard, most-repeated lines from the 1988 presidential campaign, four of them were uttered in the fall debates, according to Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine.
"If there are debates, they will probably be the most important events for the whole campaign season," he says.
So the negotiations over ground rules, now at a stalemate between the Bush and Clinton camps, can significantly magnify the political risk involved and shift it between candidates.
Governor Clinton had accepted the first debate scheduled for next Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich., by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates. But the Bush campaign allowed the debate to be canceled Wednesday by not responding.
So far, Clinton is widely assumed to want a riskier, more direct, and unstructured chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Bush. That ground could shift if Bush's standing in the polls fails to improve soon. Then Bush, as the underdog, may need to take a risk to shake up the race.
"Basically, what we're looking for now is a fumble or an interception," says Professor Wattenberg, comparing the campaign to a football game. "And debates are where that is most likely to happen."
The controversy between the campaigns was over whether the candidates would debate three times, as Clinton and the commission wished, or only twice, as Bush's negotiators preferred. Three debates may no longer be an option with only six weeks left in the campaign.
The major remaining issue is whether the candidates will debate each other directly with a single moderator, as the commission recommends, or whether they will be questioned by a panel of journalists.
Direct debates tend to provide a livelier and more revealing clash between two candidates. The panel format is more predictable and controlled, but journalists are also more likely to produce embarrassing questions that candidates would find beneath their dignity to ask.
The Clinton camp prefers the lone-moderator approach. It appears confident that Clinton is a better debater than Bush and are eager for the chance to equalize the candidates' perceived stature on the same stage.
The Bush people seem to assess the formats the same way, so prefer the more staid approach.
They may also want Clinton to face character questions, such as his explanations of his Vietnam-era draft status, without forcing the president himself to ask them.
The stakes are high in framing the debates.
More people watch each one - probably 60 million to 70 million - than any other single campaign event. The first fall debate is often the first time most voters have paid serious attention to the campaign, notes Diana Prentice Carlin, a political scientist at the University of Kansas and a leading debate expert.
The typical 90-minute debate length, Professor Carlin notes, is "the longest sustained period of time most voters will see them in action." Further, she adds, "It is the only time in the whole campaign when you see the two side by side."
Snippets from the debates often dominate the news for the next week. The coverage helps crystallize some of the campaign's defining moments, often with devastating effect: Gerald Ford's 1976 statement that Poland was "free"; Jimmy Carter's 1980 claim that he consulted his daughter, Amy, about nuclear policy; Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line the same year; vice presidential contender Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's 1988 put-down of then-Sen. Dan Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy."
Debates usually reinforce views that voters already hold, rather than change them outright, Carlin says. People leaning toward a candidate will look for a reason to support him in a debate, she says, and often find them.
For this reason, Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia expert on politics and the press, argues that debates are overblown in importance. Except for the major gaffes and defining moments that a debate occasionally produces, he says, they "rarely matter."
But Michael McCurry, a political communications consultant who helped coach Senator Bentsen in 1988, finds debates uniquely valuable for the glimpses they offer of the unvarnished, spontaneous character of the candidates. "That's what's so delicious about these debates."
The debate over the debate rules, however, is of little voter interest, analysts say. So neither candidate faces much risk of disapproval by driving a hard bargain.