Nine Days in October

THE American people deserve to have the direction of the next four years debated by the candidates most responsible for setting that direction. Now we can say, let the presidential debates begin.

Starting Sunday, Americans will witness a three-part, nine-day TV miniseries in which President George Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and Texas businessman Ross Perot present their proposals for the future and have at each other. The drama also includes a debate between vice presidential nominees Dan Quayle and Albert Gore (Mr. Perot's running mate, retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale, has not yet announced whether he will join the fray).

The final debate is Oct. 19. That allows two weeks before the election to sort through what the candidates said and how they appeared. That period helps the process since it honors the issues more than the dynamics of a particular evening. Support for the candidates is still soft; voters should cast their ballots more on the total candidate than on how photogenic, clever, or sympathetic one man happened to appear a few nights before.

A three-way debate is unprecedented in modern times; speculation about which candidate it helps most is fruitless. In another unusual twist, none of the 90-minute formats will be the same. The men will be asked questions by a moderator, reporters, and audience members on different nights. Happily, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates will sponsor the events.

The vigorous schedule, and the promise of a wide-ranging set of issues raised, means these debates can challenge the curious blend of voter anger and apathy found this year. With a troubled economy, the country needs the support of its people; citizens must feel they are participating in a decision about the future. We offer this civics sermon largely because the debates are scheduled during three baseball playoff games and a Monday night football game. Sports are wonderful. But democracy takes precedenc e.

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