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Clinton, Dole Set 2 Face-Offs for October

September 22, 1996|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole plan to hold two 90-minute debates in October under an agreement that excludes Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, officials of the major-party campaigns announced Saturday.

The bilateral agreement, disclosed after daylong negotiations, was immediately denounced by a Perot spokeswoman, who renewed the Texas billionaire's intention to file a federal lawsuit Monday seeking to prevent the debates from taking place without him.

According to the Clinton-Dole agreement, the first presidential debate will be Oct. 6 in Hartford, Conn. Both candidates will be allowed to deliver opening and closing statements. The second Clinton-Dole face-off is scheduled for Oct. 16 in San Diego. It will be in a town hall format, with the candidates allowed only closing statements after fielding questions from the audience.

The campaigns also agreed to a 90-minute debate between Vice President Al Gore and Jack Kemp, Dole's running mate. It is scheduled for Oct. 9 in St. Petersburg, Fla. All events are scheduled to start at 6 p.m. PDT.

Details have yet to be worked out, but each session is to be presided over by one moderator, presumably a different person for each event. Previous presidential debates have often included panels of journalists, a format that many regarded as unwieldy.

The agreement means that plans by Washington University in St. Louis to host the presidential candidates on Wednesday are off, although Dole is still planning to campaign there that day.

Both the Clinton and Dole camps claimed something of a victory after the agreement was announced.

Dole got his overarching goal of excluding Perot from the debates. Strategists for the GOP team believe that Perot's presence on the ballot this year could drain more votes from them than from the Democrats, as was the case in 1992, when Perot won 19% of the vote. Republicans were anxious to avoid giving him exposure in the debates. Dole also simply wanted to go head-to-head with Clinton.

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For Dole, the stakes in the debates are especially high, given his inability to narrow Clinton's double-digit lead in most public-opinion polls. Having failed to ignite broad, lasting public enthusiasm with his June resignation from the Senate, his "pro-growth" economic agenda and his selection of Kemp, Dole faces what could be a final opportunity to energize his campaign.

Gary Koops, a Dole spokesman, said the candidate is delighted to debate Clinton one on one.

"This is what we wanted, and it's very good for Bob Dole," he said, adding that Clinton's negotiating team "agreed to [exclude Perot] very early in the morning."

A senior Clinton-Gore official put a different spin on the matter: "It became clear to our negotiators that Dole was not willing to debate, period, if Ross Perot was involved. He was willing to cancel the whole process. With that in mind, we very reluctantly agreed to Dole's demand that Ross Perot be excluded."

Clinton officials claimed victory from the fact that one of the debates will be in the style of a town hall meeting, a format that served Clinton well four years ago.

Also, Clinton's team had previously wanted the first debate to occur no earlier than Oct. 3 and the final one no later than Oct. 16, with all the debates at least 90 minutes long.

But Dole's campaign professed not to be concerned about having made those concessions.

"It's great for us that the president is going to appear before the American people to answer for his liberal record. We'd love to debate as much as he wants," said Nelson Warfield, Dole's press secretary.

Clinton's debate negotiators were led by Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, who chaired Clinton's 1992 campaign, and by Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan, one of the president's closest friends.

Dole's team was headed by former South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., now a Washington insurance lobbyist.

Campaign officials said the audiences for the debates will be jointly selected by the two campaigns, along with the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which had recommended that Perot be excluded from the events. Perot participated in the 1992 debates.

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From Dallas, Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman said the debates would amount to "a loss for the American people" because the polls show that the public by a 3-to-1 margin wants Perot to take part and because many vital issues, such as campaign-finance reform and entitlement reform, may not be addressed.

"The other real critical thing is that the agreement represents such a reinforcement of the good ol' boy system of protecting the status quo that does even more to increase public cynicism," she said.

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