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CAMPAIGN 2000

Debates Will Happen, Bush Camp Says

Politics: The Texas governor asks his campaign chairman to work out a schedule for what could be the last pivotal events of the presidential race.

September 09, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — After a week of insisting upon presidential debates structured to his own liking, Republican candidate George W. Bush on Friday agreed to reopen negotiations with his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.

Bush assigned his campaign chairman, Donald Evans, to work out a debate schedule with the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates for what could be the last pivotal events of the race.

"He is taking the initiative to break the impasse and make sure that the American people have the debates they deserve," Bush communications director Karen Hughes said.

Gore's campaign chairman, Bill Daley, welcomed the Texas governor's pledge to resume negotiations. "We look forward to the meeting," he said.

Bush's move came after fellow Republicans voiced concerns that the dispute concerning the debates was diverting attention from issues more likely to help him win the election.

"They made their point, and I think it's time to move on," Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge said Friday at a Bush campaign stop near Pittsburgh. "I know that Gov. Bush and his team know that you cannot sustain a debate on the debates for too long."

The announcement came as Bush arrived in Waco, Texas, to spend the weekend at his nearby ranch after campaigning Friday in Pennsylvania and Missouri--both hotly contested swing states.

On Sunday, Bush announced that he would attend only one of the three debates proposed by the commission--plus joint appearances with Gore on CNN's "Larry King Live" and an evening edition of NBC's "Meet the Press."

The commission has sponsored every general election presidential debate since 1988.

Gore's campaign said the vice president had accepted invitations to 45 debates with Bush, but wouldn't attend any unless Bush first agreed to the commission's debates.

Bush, in turn, accused Gore of breaking his word by refusing to appear on the less formal--and less widely televised--NBC and CNN shows after saying that he would do so. The Bush campaign said it was resuming talks about debates because NBC refused to let the governor appear without Gore on "Meet the Press."

"We hope that the presence of the debate commission will mean that this time the vice president will keep his word if he makes a commitment to debate," Hughes said.

The commission will try to set up a meeting with Bush and Gore campaign officials next week in Washington, said Janet Brown, the panel's executive director.

On the campaign trail Friday, Bush moved to lower expectations for his first face-to-face appearance with Gore.

"My opponent is a very good debater," he told workers at a high-tech equipment plant near Pittsburgh. "I hope I can hold my own."

Bush's morning visit to the Marconi Communications plant was the first in a series of one-on-one encounters with what he calls "real people," in their homes and workplaces. The events are part of a restyling of his campaign aimed at regaining his earlier edge over Gore in the polls.

"The best way for me to get my message out is to speak directly to the people; is to come to events like this and answer your questions," Bush told plant employees.

But few of their questions over coffee in the company cafeteria led to answers that differed much from what he says day after day on the stump. Still, one woman asked about affirmative action, a subject he rarely discusses.

"I'll tell you what it means to me," Bush responded. "It means quotas. I oppose quotas. Quotas, to me, create a Balkanized society pitting groups of people against each other.

"One of the wonderful things about America is, it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from," Bush said. "If you work hard, dream big, the notion of owning your own business applies to everybody."

Other questions led Bush into remarks concerning the environment, a subject often raised by his opponent. Bush told the group he disapproved of the way President Clinton has barred commercial use of vast stretches of wilderness. Land preservation, Bush said, "requires a philosophy that says we'll be cooperative."

"I, for example, would not have taken 40 million acres right off the books without dealing with local jurisdictions and local authorities," Bush said.

But for the most part, the GOP nominee stuck to promoting his plan to cut $1.3 trillion in taxes over 10 years. He told the group he might phase it in faster than he has proposed.

"If we ever went into a recession--which I certainly hope we do not do, and I don't think we will--I'm going to increase the pace of the tax relief," Bush said. "The way to grow yourself out of a recession is to accelerate tax relief for the people."

At his next stop, also in Pittsburgh, Bush posed under the wing of his campaign plane for photos with about 20 police officers and state troopers as he accepted the endorsement of the National Fraternal Order of Police. The union earlier rejected its steering committee's recommendation for Gore. Bush told the group that, with him, they will have "a friend in the White House."

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