WASHINGTON - Republican George W. Bush, giving in after a two-week battle over debates, agreed Thursday to Democrat Al Gore's demand that they meet in three prime-time confrontations sponsored by a bipartisan panel. The running mates will debate once.
Americans will see Bush and Gore go head to head on television Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis, with each debate lasting 90 minutes, according to the agreement reached Thursday. Details on the format still must be worked out.
The deal marked Bush's acceptance of the schedule proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. He had previously balked at following the commission's recommendations, pushing for less formal debates on TV talk shows, but relented under pressure to put the distraction behind him.
The agreement was announced by Bush campaign chairman Don Evans and his Democratic counterpart, Gore campaign chairman William Daley, after their first joint meeting with the debate commission.
''The governor is very eager to debate,'' Evans said.
''We've made great progress,'' said Daley. ''The American people want to hear from these people.''
The vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney, will debate Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.
The negotiations ended a standoff lasting several weeks in which Bush held out for doing only one debate sponsored by the commission and several less formal matchups in other venues, such as one on a special edition of NBC's ''Meet the Press'' and another on CNN's ''Larry King Live.''
The way the three presidential debates will be conducted was still unsettled but commission leaders said they expected the campaigns to resolve the details within two days.
''The major thing is that the debate debate is over,'' said Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the commission and former Democratic National Committee chairman. ''The credit goes to the campaigns ... that they saw the wisdom of agreeing to it and getting this noise level about it behind them.''
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the commission and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, ''The American people ... are going to have a full airing of all the issues in this campaign.''
The commission leaders made it clear at the outset of the meeting that they could not agree to moving debate sites announced in January.
Only two presidential debates were held in 1996 and one between running mates. The record for presidential debates - four between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 - still has not been matched.
Daley was joined at the negotiations by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and adviser Jim Johnson, while Bush was represented by Evans, campaign manager Joe Allbaugh and adviser Andrew Card.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush wants a ''free-flowing, spontaneous format instead of the rehearsed, wooden formats where candidates are rewarded for memorizing 30-second sound bites.''
The meeting with the commission came a day after a Gore confidant received a mysterious package of documents that appeared to concern Bush's debate preparations. The FBI is reviewing the material.
It's unclear whether the material is legitimate or a hoax.
Bush communications director Karen Hughes said the campaign is not conducting an internal investigation because people who had ''legitimate access'' to the tapes were very few and very loyal. ''So obviously we don't feel that ... they came from our staff,'' Hughes said.
She said that only a few top-ranking people had access to the tapes, including herself, Allbaugh, top advisers Karl Rove and Mark McKinnon. She said she didn't know where the tapes were kept. The Bush campaign said an internal investigation had not yet turned up any missing tapes. Tom Downey, a former congressman who has been helping Gore prepare for debates, said the package he received contained documents and a videotape apparently related to Bush's debate preparations.
Downey has told associates he is convinced the material is legitimate, in part because he saw Bush in what appeared to be a mock debate with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who is serving as Gore's stand-in, according to two Democratic lawyers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The package was postmarked Austin, Texas, home of Bush headquarters.