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Face-Offs Proliferate : '88 Race? It's Highly Debatable

July 25, 1987|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

In Grovers Mill, N. J., the committee commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast wants to sponsor a presidential debate next year.

In Georgia, the Republican Party of Catoosa County--where the Confederate Army at Chickamauga won one of its last major victories of the Civil War--would like to hold a debate by Republican presidential candidates.

Americans may be apathetic when it comes to voting, but the idea of being host to a debate has aroused people's interest across the country.

Numerous Invitations

Well over a year before the 1988 presidential election, civic and political organizations, colleges and universities, groups of retired people, peace organizations, consumers' groups and business associations all have submitted invitations to the candidates to come and debate.

Thirty-six cities, more than ever before, have applied to the League of Women Voters to be host to one of its planned series of televised general election debates in the fall of 1988, League President Nancy Neuman said.

"We must have received 70 invitations to debate already. They're coming out of the woodwork," Barbara Pardue, press secretary for Vice President George Bush, said.

This year, debates are replacing straw polls as the preferred early test of the feasibility of a candidacy.

For many in politics, it is a welcome change.

Criticism of Straw Polls

"Straw polls are essentially a test of organizational skills and not of voter preference. All too often, the winner of a straw poll was the candidate who could bus in the most supporters to a hotel ballroom on a Saturday night," said Richard Moe, a Washington lawyer and member of the recently formed Commission on Presidential Debates, which was established by officials of the two major parties to sponsor four presidential debates in the fall of 1988.

For the candidates, the appeal of debating has a lot to do with new communications technology, which permits them to transmit their debates via satellite to television stations across the country comparatively cheaply without depending on the major networks.

"The debates are the most positive thing to come out of the age of television," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked for former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.

Hess acknowledged that the audiences for early debates are comparatively small. For example, the League of Women Voters estimates that more than 100 million people saw President Reagan debate his Democratic opponent, Walter F. Mondale, in 1984, but the Public Broadcasting Service reported that about 7 million people saw this year's first prime-time debate, a July 1 forum featuring seven Democratic candidates on PBS's "Firing Line" program.

But Hess argues that the size of the audience belies its significance.

"Debates are useful even this early in the campaign," he said. "The audiences tend to be small, but they are made up of the kind of political junkies, the activists, money people and insider types who help shape the campaigns."

Nevertheless, the new trend is not universally welcomed. Critics complain that too much emphasis on debating could allow the slickest speakers to prevail over the ablest statesmen.

"Debates are a test of peripheral skills, clearly not trivial ones, but not the skills central to whether someone has the wisdom and ability to govern well," said Nelson W. Polsby, a political science professor at UC Berkeley who has written extensively on campaign politics.

Old Tests Irrelevant

With candidates judged on their ability to project an appealing screen presence, Polsby said, the old tests of political readiness have become largely irrelevant.

"It used to be you'd look at a candidate's record. You'd watch to see what the people around him had to say. It was a kind of peer review, and it provided valuable information," Polsby said. "If a candidate had 40 congressmen working for him, that counted for something."

On the other hand, political author Kathleen Jamieson of the University of Texas sees the televised debate as an instrument of democracy, giving lesser-known candidates an equal voice with the front-runners.

"In the past, it was an insiders' game. Those without the money and the endorsements didn't have much of a chance," Jamieson said.

And Jamieson argues that debating skills are important leadership qualities in an age when presidents often must use television to mobilize public support for their policies.

Power of Persuasion Cited

"The ability to govern can hinge on a leader's ability to persuade a mass audience," she said.

With nothing to lose but their anonymity, many of the 14 presidential candidates this year are welcoming the invitations to enter the mine fields of televised debate, where the serious-minded can sound foolish and faux pas and 5 o'clock shadows can be fatal.

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