Bush Debate Proposal Could Lead to Lively Finale to Fall Election

Although president refused to debate primary opponents, analysts do not see an easy time for challenger Clinton

WILL American voters, now leaning toward Bill Clinton, give President Bush a second look?

Lagging 9 to 12 points in the polls, the president desperately needs another chance to convince recession-weary Americans that he deserves another four years in the White House.

So with barely one month left, Mr. Bush took a bold gamble, challenging Governor Clinton to four weekly debates, including one 36 hours before election day.

It's a high-stakes offer. A major gaffe in the last debate could come too close to the election for a candidate to recover. Further, Bush offered two vice-presidential debates, in which Democratic Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee will be favored over Vice President Dan Quayle.

Analysts say Bush's offer may have come too late. The president, objecting to the format, has already refused three debates lined up by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Democrats have lampooned the president as "chicken George" for refusing to take the stage. In Michigan, site of the first debate, Clinton rose sharply in the polls when the president failed to appear.

Yet Bush's offer, if accepted by Clinton, could make the final month of the campaign one of the liveliest on record.

"I hereby challenge my opponent to a debate on every Sunday evening between Oct. 11 and Nov. 1," Bush told supporters in Tennessee. "In addition, I think that during the five-week period there should be at least two vice-presidential debates."

Clinton responded, in effect: Not so fast. There was already a bipartisan debate schedule. And Bush refused to take part.

"My reaction to that is, if we are going to start, we ought to start this Sunday [with the commission-sponsored debate]. We had a date this Sunday. I accepted it."

Adding to the confusion, Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, says he will also be there for debates "anywhere, anytime" if he gets into the race - possibly as early as today. Bush says Perot would be welcome.

The debate over debates is no minor matter. Diana Carlin, a professor who advises the presidential debate commission, says no other single political event matches the public appeal of a presidential showdown on television.

Professor Carlin, who teaches at the University of Kansas, recalls that the first-ever televised debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy was viewed by 71 million people, which was 89.8 percent of all homes with TV sets.

The debates four years ago between Michael Dukakis and Bush drew the biggest United States audience ever - an estimated 160 million. Millions of additional viewers also see the debates worldwide.

Since his campaign is far behind, Bush's reluctance to show up for debates had surprised many analysts and delighted the Democrats.

Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia says Bush's no-shows at the first debate in Michigan last week and the second in Kentucky this week were "very signal acts of cowardice."

The senator charges that Bush "is not debating because he's afraid of his past, he's afraid of his record...."

Clinton has repeatedly made a similar point. He has charged again and again that Bush wouldn't debate because he doesn't want to defend his economic record, which Clinton charges is the worst in 60 years.

Republicans see it differently. White House officials explain that the president is anxious to debate, but prefers the format used in the 1988 campaign. That year, the candidates were questioned by a panel of reporters.

The commission calls for a single moderator, which could result in more direct exchanges between the candidates.

Under the president's latest proposal, two of the debates would be with a single moderator, while the other two would be with panels of reporters.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Bush would be at a disadvantage if the candidates really mix it up in a heated debate. Clinton appeared in scores of debates with numerous opponents, from Jerry Brown to Paul Tsongas, during the presidential primaries, and crafted his answers to a sharp edge.

Bush refused to debate his only major Republican challenger, Patrick Buchanan, and may be rusty.

However, Carlin scoffs at the notion that Bush could be easily dispatched by Clinton.

"Every debate is unique," she notes. "And Bush has had extensive experience," including the 1980 campaign, when he battled Ronald Reagan; 1984, when he confronted the only female vice-presidential nominee ever, Geraldine Ferraro; and 1988, when he did well against Governor Dukakis.

The biggest unknown could be Mr. Perot. If he runs, Perot will step onto the debate stage with a fixed agenda, including campaign reform and an all-out attack on the federal budget deficit of $333 billion.

With little chance of winning the election, Perot will have nothing to lose, analysts say. He may force the debates into channels that both the major-party candidates would prefer to avoid.

Bush's debate proposal came just as Democrats on Capitol Hill were taking further steps to embarrass him. Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida and others were supporting a "sense of the Senate" resolution which would have called on the president to return $75 million in public campaign funds if he refused to meet Clinton head-to-head in televised debates.

Senator Graham argues that without debates in which the candidates clearly explain what they will do in the White House, the next president will not have a clear mandate to govern.

Graham says: "President Bush, debate, or give us back our money."

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