WASHINGTON — The Republican and Democratic parties will jointly sponsor 1988 presidential debates, the parties' chairmen announced Wednesday to the dismay of the League of Women Voters, which has run the debates since 1976.
Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said the parties have decided to form a bipartisan, nonprofit commission to conduct the nationally televised forums so the parties can play a greater role in that crucial aspect of the presidential campaign.
Representatives of the league, meanwhile, charged that party-sponsored debates will inevitably give short shrift to third-party candidates and will amount to no more than a "political pillow fight."
"I think they're trying to steal the debate from the American voter, not the League of Women Voters," said league President Nancy M. Neuman, who declared that her organization will proceed with plans for three 1988 presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. She said she is confident that the candidates will cooperate.
At the heart of the dispute is a desire by the parties to assert control over the organization and format of the debates, which can have more voter impact than any other single candidate appearance during the latter stages of the campaign. The league, however, seems determined to retain the high-profile role that has lent it considerable prestige over the last 10 years.
Although taking pains not to criticize directly the league's handling of previous debates, one of the new commission's organizers said some past debates have been plagued by "haphazard" organization and "staid formats."
A goal of the 10-member commission, said the organizer, Newton N. Minow of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, will be to set debate formats and logistics earlier to expedite planning. The commission will also be better able to resolve candidate requests and disputes because of its party association, he said.
Fahrenkopf and Kirk are co-chairmen of the commission. Vice chairmen are Democrat Richard Moe, who was former Vice President Walter F. Mondale's chief of staff and is campaign adviser for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), and David Norcross, counsel for the Republican National Committee.
Other Democrats on the commission are former Sen. John C. Culver of Iowa, former Urban League leader Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Pamela Harriman, chairwoman of Democrats for the '80s. Other Republicans are Gov. Kay A. Orr of Nebraska, Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich (R-Nev.) and Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).
"By jointly sponsoring these debates, we will better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process, and, most important of all, we can institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential process," the party chairmen said in a joint statement.
'Part of the Process'
Neuman discounted the suggestion that the parties could do a better job, saying that was just a reflection of their inexperience with debates. "Haphazard is part of the process," she said. "It's naive to assume you could work everything out in advance." She said the league's debates will have more credibility because of its independent status and its history as the "sponsor of choice" for presidential debates.
"Would the parties include a John Anderson in 1988 as the league did in 1980?" Neuman asked, referring to the independent candidate who debated Ronald Reagan on television. President Jimmy Carter declined the invitation to debate Anderson.
"Our primary responsibility is with the two major parties," but the commission would not rule out including a viable third-party candidate, Fahrenkopf said.
The party officials said the number and schedule of debates has not been set. They said all the likely contenders have agreed to work with the new commission, which will be funded by donations.
The League of Women Voters has been sponsoring the presidential debates since 1976, when the Federal Communications Commission's "equal time" rule forced the networks to present them as news events with an independent moderator.