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Who's Afraid to Debate?

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP / A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies.

September 10, 2000|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush is in trouble. I feel his pain. Oh, how the press stories hurt. The Times reports that supporters are increasingly nervous about his lagging poll numbers. The New York Times said Bush's candidacy is "floundering." The New York Post called it "high-anxiety time." Your own supporters go on record blasting your strategy, an ominous sign for any presidential campaign.

Feeling picked on, George W.? Welcome to the Lost Presidents' Club. Been there, heard those same words at the same time--the week after Labor Day. Know it all too well. Walter F. Mondale in '84. Michael S. Dukakis in '88. Same stories, same panic and always the same response: Let's debate.

Virtually every presidential candidate behind in the polls on Labor Day has called for debates--and lots of them. What else can you do? Face-to-face debates are about the only events that can change the dynamic of the race and slow the front-runner's momentum. Most of the time, like 1984 and 1988, it doesn't work. But there are exceptions: John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.

So the Bush campaign's call on Al Gore to stop ducking and debate is nothing new. What is new is that Gore is more than happy to debate Bush. Front-runners usually don't like debates. Too risky. Why give the underdog a chance to land a lucky punch: He's down, keep him there.

Front-runners have to debate, of course, lest they get pummeled by the media and raise suspicions about their motives among voters. But front-runners want, and usually get, debates on their terms. The terms are historically the same: as few debates as possible, as far from election day as possible and as scripted as possible.

In 1984, the Mondale campaign wanted four presidential debates with wide-open formats, including the candidates questioning each other, and we wanted them two weeks before the election. We got two debates, highly structured, no candidates questioning each other, six weeks before the election. Dukakis didn't fare much better. Why? Because front-runners hold all the cards, and you ain't even got a pair of deuces.

So what does George W. do? He calls for three debates and even runs TV ads to make his point. The result: Bush is the one who looks like he's ducking. Why? Because he insists that two of the debates be held in forums--CNN's "Larry King Live" and NBC's "Meet the Press"--with relatively small audiences. The other would be sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates and would be carried by all the networks in prime time. Not only has the commission been the debate forum for the last three presidential campaigns, but Gore has already accepted its three-debate proposal.

What's going on here? The Bush campaign cites Gore's oft-repeated call for several debates, including the King and "Meet the Press" exchanges, which the vice president had agreed to. But the Bush campaign wants these debates to replace two of the 90-minute debates proposed by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Gore wants both.

The Bush campaign is gambling that by refusing to participate in the smaller debates, Gore will look like he's ducking--the old front-runner strategy. The problem with this strategy is that the media aren't buying it for one minute. They know Gore is more than willing to debate Bush; in fact, he's eager to. Hence, the "ducking" pitch is falling on deaf ears. Beyond that, by limiting himself to King and "Meet the Press," the other networks would be excluded. Talk about bad press relations.

There is only one conclusion to draw from this fiasco: Bush is not ready for prime time, literally. In 1996, the commission-sponsored debates between President Bill Clinton and Bob Dole averaged 41 million viewers. In 1992, the debates between Clinton, President George Bush and Ross Perot drew 90.3 million viewers. Combined, King and "Meet the Press" would draw a fraction of that audience. Conclusion: Bush is afraid of Gore's well-known debating skills, and, in the words of University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, Bush has given people the feeling that "he's afraid to meet Gore." You go, Larry.

What is even more astounding about the Bush debate strategy is that it has the potential to squander the only opportunity he has to win. He would be the clear underdog going into the first debate, given Gore's previous debating successes, and that for Bush would be a huge advantage. Expectations for the Texas governor would be low, while high for Gore. Anything close to a tie would be a big win for Bush. All the pressure would be on Gore, little on Bush. What more could you want?

If Bush believes that the country really wants change from the Clinton years, he should use history as a guide. In 1960, voters wanted change, but they were unsure about the young upstart senator from Massachusetts. Vice President Richard M. Nixon, though not popular, seemed a safer choice--until their debates. Kennedy showed he could hold his own, and then some.

In 1980, voters clearly wanted a change from President Jimmy Carter, but Reagan seemed too extreme--until their debate. Reagan came across as a nice guy, not a mad bomber, and voters went for him in droves.

Now, in 2000, voters have serious questions about whether Bush can handle the big job. If he could hold his own against the master of debates in front of 50 million viewers, he might, just might, get back in the race. Bush's refusal to do so, however, may go down as one the worst political strategies in history. *

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