Here's a debate question: Where's the leadership?

These have been a bad few weeks for the crew down in Austin.

Ever since the Democratic convention, George W. Bush has seemed a bit off. Off-stride and off-message.

There were the verbal gaffes - mistaking the word tariffs with terriers.

There was the negative commercial that didn't air - and the one that did a week later.

And there was that "is-this-mike-on?" miscue, where W. stood smiling and waving in front of a crowd, while referring to New York Times correspondent Adam Clymer as a "major-league [expletive]."

Each of these things alone is a simple mistake. Heck, you could even argue that the Clymer comment was a plus. No Republican ever lost points for running against The New York Times.

Together, though, they represent something of a trend, a need to get it together in Bush land. And when you add in this week's great debate over debates, it may be time to sound the alarms.

Every four years we go through a little dance over the debates. How long should they be? How many should there be? But there's something different this year, and it doesn't bode well for where this contest is heading - unless of course you're a stand-up comic, in which case you're not going to want for material.

It all began on Sunday when Bush announced that after sorting through the countless invitations he had received, he had found three times he could meet with Gore to debate. He's busy you know, running for president and all that.

They were, unfortunately, not the forums selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan group created to schedule debates so that we don't get into these kinds of problems.

Instead, Bush said, he would only be able to attend one of the commission debates. The other two, he said, could take place on "Larry King Live" and a special prime-time edition of "Meet the Press."

The great problem with this, of course, is that no one knows quite how W. was appointed Debate Commissar, or for that matter, who appointed him. It is common for candidates to try to make the debate structure work in their favor, but never has a candidate simply named the dates, locations, moderators, and networks for the meetings.

This raises all sorts of questions.

First off, why does Bush want the debates to appear on specific networks instead of all networks? Well, Bush's people say, considering the importance of the debates, the other networks would be "hard-pressed not to cover it."

But since when does a Republican want to dictate how a private company does business - especially when it involves helping a competitor?

Second, why does Bush want Larry King and Tim Russert as moderators? Well, he says, he wants "in-depth discussion of the issues" and "tough questioning." Fair enough. But why then does he want the debates to be an hour instead of 90 minutes long? Even by Washington standards this is double talk in danger of running amok.

But now W. has taken the absurd-o-meter to the next level. Late this week he released an ad attacking Gore for not accepting the W. plan. The vice president, Bush says, promised to debate him anywhere, anytime, and now he's trying to get out of it.

"If we can't trust Al Gore on debates, why should we trust him on anything?" the ad asks.

This is a bit like when you were young and the kid down the street said everyone had to play by his rules or they were chicken. Such action can meet with only one response: Gore calling Bush a big dummy, and telling him he can't come over and play in the sandbox anymore.

But the debate debate is about more than name calling.

This race has changed since the Democratic convention. Suddenly, Gore, who had been trailing since the end of the primary season, has found himself ahead in the polls. And Bush, who has been the presumptive everything since 1999, has slipped.

This is not a comfortable position for W., whose campaign always seems to run better when it's out front rather than behind. The only other time he's run into trouble in this campaign - against McCain in the primaries - his team stumbled and looked wobbly.

Now, in the face of another unsettling moment, Bush again looks unsure. He needs to get back on track. Playing semantic games on the debates isn't going to cut it.

Bush maintains people should vote for him because he's a leader. If that's leadership, it's not going to win many votes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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