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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush's Debate Offer Elicits Doubt From TV Executives

Politics: Texan rejects meeting with commission as networks say they won't air competing telecasts.

September 06, 2000|DANA CALVO and ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ignoring a request by the Commission on Presidential Debates for a meeting this week, GOP nominee George W. Bush continued to insist on Tuesday that Vice President Al Gore join him in two alternative "mix it up and spar" debates on select networks.

Bush agreed to the commission's St. Louis debate but rejected the other two televised, 90-minute matchups that have been agreed to by the major networks.

But there was considerable skepticism Tuesday among some television news executives that Bush's proposal to debate on CNN's "Larry King Live" or NBC's "Meet the Press" with moderator Tim Russert would come to pass, given the political pressures to participate in the commission debates.

Neither of these shows would have the reach of a three-network debate because ABC and CBS executives say they will not broadcast the debates on competing networks.

"We don't have any intentions of airing other people's talk shows on our network," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

The informal format of "Meet the Press" and "Larry King Live," Bush's campaign said, would allow for more probing, thoughtful discussions.

"The governor thinks free-flowing debates are spontaneous and force the candidates to mix it up and spar," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Although squabbles over debates have become something of a ritual in political campaigns, this appears to be the first time the commission's debate proposal has been rejected by a presidential candidate, said Janet H. Brown, executive director of the nonpartisan group that was founded in 1987.

On Sunday, the commission requested a meeting with representatives from both campaigns to smooth things out. Gore staffers agreed to a meeting, but Bush representatives have not responded, Brown said.

Fresh from a tour on Tuesday of the proposed vice presidential debate site at the University of Massachusetts, Brown denied rumors that any of the three proposed presidential debates had been canceled. She said commission members would be heading to Centre College in Danville, Ky., today or Thursday to check out that proposed vice presidential venue.

The commission aims to offer a public service to voters by garnering the largest audience possible. In 1996, one of the two debates between Republican Bob Dole and President Clinton drew 46.1 million viewers. In 1992, the final debate between Reform Party leader Ross Perot, President Bush and Clinton drew 97 million viewers.

Traditionally, the debates have been carried by the three major networks. But ABC and CBS, at the behest of the campaigns, this year had submitted their own proposals for debates to the commission.

However, Heyward said CBS' proposal for an hourlong prime-time debate was made on condition that the official commission debates fell apart.

"We didn't want to be used, in the way that any of the networks could easily be used, as leverage or a tool against the commission debates," he said. "I don't think we should be drawn into the fray, or used to score points."

"To call these King and Tim Russert proposals 'debates' may suit some of the people involved, but it's arguable," Heyward added. "They're talk shows that have booked both guests."

NBC News, which produces "Meet the Press," was not being used by the Bush campaign, according to spokeswoman Barbara Levin.

"Ultimately it is the candidates who decide when they debate, as it's always been. Both ABC and CBS offered prime-time debates, as well, and we can only assume that they are comfortable with that approach."

NBC or CNN debates would likely get some extended coverage on cable news and general networks.

"We think it's a news story, the first time these two sit down together, and something that our viewers deserve to see," said Marty Ryan, executive producer of political coverage for the Fox News Channel. He noted that they would be a little different than a commission debate moderated by a major anchor from one of the networks.

"The reasons the commission was established was so campaigns wouldn't be bickering back and forth," said Gore campaign spokeswoman Kym Spell. "We want to get our message out there, we want to give the American people the chance to hear Al Gore talk about what's important to them in a forum that allows for the most viewers in extended formats."

But Fleischer said that traditional format deprives voters from seeing the man behind the policies.

"The debates are rigid, where you're given responses, rebuttal, and rebuttal to the rebuttal. They're made for sound bites," he said.

Bruce Cain, UC Berkeley political science professor, said Bush is trying to play it safe when debates are inherently risky.

"You can't eliminate all the uncertainty that arises in a debate," he said. "That's what makes the debate so important: It's the last spontaneous thing that happens in this election. That's a scary thing for the candidate, because it raises uncertainties, possibilities for things you can't plan for or program, but it's the most valuable thing for the voter because we're trying to get below the veneer of the image that's been constructed."

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