AS OF LAST WEEK, Al Gore had been invited to participate in 45 presidential debates. Gore has "accepted all of them," boasts aide Mark Fabiani, "legitimate and half-way legitimate," including an offer from would-be moderator David Letterman. Gore says he wants to debate as often as possible, and he has challenged George W. Bush to join him in all 45 forums. If Bush were to agree, television viewers could watch a new presidential debate every weeknight from Labor Day to the election.
This is not likely to happen. Bush has said he will appear in three debates with Al Gore. Dick Cheney will meet Joe Lieberman twice. To reporters who ask, the Bush campaign describes the five debates as "historic." (No other modern presidential ticket has appeared in more than four.) "We think participating in a record-breaking number is a fitting way to bring the issues before the American people," says campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer. Fleischer goes on to point out that in 1964, 1968, and 1972 there were no presidential debates at all.
For what it's worth, all of this is true. But unlike every other major presidential candidate since 1988, Bush has not agreed to participate in the debates arranged by the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates. This year, the commission has proposed debates that would be 90 minutes long, broadcast during prime time. It is likely they would be aired simultaneously by all six television networks. This arrangement is called "roadblock" coverage (viewers can't get around it), and it guarantees enormous ratings. By one estimate, the final presidential debate in 1992 drew 97 million viewers.
Bush doesn't want to participate in a debate like this, the Gore campaign charges, because he is fearful of looking foolish. "They want practice runs," scoffs a senior Gore adviser. "They don't want the first debate he participates in to be watched by 97 million people." Gore himself has pressed the point relentlessly. Late last week Gore announced that, before he will debate Bush in any other forum, Bush must first agree to appear at a commission-sponsored debate.
Bush officials say they feel no pressure to rise to the bait. "Road-blocking doesn't carry the same weight it did 15 years ago," says Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, who spent last week meeting with network executives in Washington. "Because of cable and satellite there are 250 channels people can watch." Bush, his advisers say, might prefer to stage a debate on a single broadcast network (during a Sunday morning news show, for instance) or on a cable program like Larry King Live. The point is, the presidential debate commission debates aren't the only possible debates. "They're not sanctioned by any state or federal law that I'm aware of," Allbaugh says. "They kind of created themselves out of thin air." Other Bush strategists are more direct: "Nobody elected the commission," says one. "Who put them in charge?"
These are valid questions, but they may cease to matter. Gore will probably win the rhetorical battle because, fundamentally, his argument makes more sense: The commission debates reach the most people. Why not agree to them?
The Bush campaign has a couple of answers. Neither is very convincing. The first is, Bush is resisting the debate commission because the debate commission is an instrument of the Washington status quo, and Bush is a maverick. "We're thinking outside the box," explains an aide. The second is, "No one cares" about boring logistical details like these: "This is a debate about a debate." It's too inside to matter. And anyway, in the end, Bush will debate Gore.
Perhaps these arguments will work. More likely, many voters will conclude that Bush is afraid to debate Gore.
The irony is that Bush aides are fairly confident about their candidate's debating skills. We know this because they pretend not to be. "Al Gore is a formidable debater," says Ari Fleischer. "He's very, very good." No doubt, agrees Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon. "If this were a race for debater-in-chief, it would be a runaway."
There is a don't-throw-me-into-the-briar-patch quality to statements like these. If members of Bush's staff really thought their boss was going to get clobbered in the debates, it is unlikely they'd say so. (Bush staffers almost never make unauthorized statements.) The Bush campaign is taking the debates seriously, but no one seems panicked. Bush will spar extensively with Sen. Judd Gregg, who will play the part of Gore in mock debates. Campaign advisers have read and reread a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows that offers insight into Gore's fundamental debating strategy (needle opponents until they lose control of themselves). They feel prepared. The belief in Austin is, Bush will turn out to be more skillful on stage than expected.
But even if he doesn't, there is an argument that Bush should debate early and often anyway. This was John McCain's advice to Bush during their first kiss-and-make-up meeting this spring in Pittsburgh. With each debate, McCain reasoned, Bush would grow more comfortable and fluid. And with so many debates to watch, public interest would rapidly diminish. Each debate would become less significant. Bush could bomb in one and make it up at the next.
This is roughly what happened during the primaries. During one of his first appearances with the other candidates, in Arizona, Bush came close to embarrassing himself. Steve Forbes, hardly a master of the extemporaneous jab, seemed to stump him with a simple question about oil exploration, a business Bush knows intimately. By the last debate, in California in March, Bush had improved. Some on Bush's staff believe it was his best performance. (It may have helped that John McCain appeared that night by remote from a St. Louis television studio.)
It was certainly more impressive than the performance Bush gave last December, when he decided to skip the early primary debates. One of those debates was sponsored in part by New Hampshire's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. "Bush claimed he couldn't attend because Laura was receiving an alumni award at Southern Methodist University," remembers Bernadette Malone Connolly, the paper's editorial page editor. "We wrote an editorial saying that real men can make schedule changes to accommodate presidential debates." The Bush campaign responded immediately. "They called us and said, 'How dare you? Mrs. Bush is very upset.' They feigned outrage."
In the end, it didn't matter. Relatively few people outside of New Hampshire even noticed. The other candidates were unable to turn Bush's no-show into a significant news story. This time, people in the rest of the country are paying attention. And Al Gore is a far better publicist than the rest of the GOP primary candidates combined.
BY TUCKER CARLSON