Campaigns agree on series of 'free-flowing' debates moderated by PBS' Jim Lehrer

WASHINGTON - Campaign aides for Al Gore and George W. Bush agreed Saturday to a series of three debates moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS that both sides said will provide more flexibility and more of a ''free-flowing style'' than previous debates.

Both campaigns and officials from the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates called the new approach ''historic.''

In a departure from the strict guidelines of past debates, the moderator more discretion in following up on questions and allowing the candidates to continue to debate a particular topic.

''It gives the moderator a more free-flowing style and more discretion to stay on one particular subject,'' said Don Evans, campaign chairman for Gov. Bush. ''There will be an opportunity for a very free-flowing, substantive, real and genuine discussion of the issues.''

Gore campaign chairman William Daley said he was pleased with the final lineup of formats and the expanded discretion for Lehrer.

''They are interesting formats and they give the American people the greatest opportunity... to see these candidates and to listen to them specifically speak on issues of great importance to the American people,'' Daley said.

Daley said he spoke with the vice president who told him he was ''extremely pleased'' with the results of the negotiations.

Commission officials were enthusiastic about the final plan.

''This is a good day for the process and a good day for America,'' said Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the commission and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee

Commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said having three different formats will allow voters to see the candidates in a variety of settings.

''We are not electing the best debater and that is why seeing these candidates in different formats is particularly important,'' he said.

Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the final plan: ''It is a new way to debate. For the first time, we are going to have a wide-open format.''

The 90-minute debates are set to start at 9 p.m. EDT on:

-Oct. 3 at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts in a traditional, two-lectern format.

-Oct. 11 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. in a talk show style format seated around a table with the moderator. That approach is unprecedented in a presidential debate.

-Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis, the candidates will hold a town hall debate similar to ones held in 1992 and 1996 elections.

The vice presidential candidates will debate Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. The running mates will also hold their debate in the talk show format with the moderator to be named early next week.

Gore aides had already accepted the three-format plan, which the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates proposed in January. Republican Bush had earlier balked at both the suggested formats and the commission's three-debate schedule, but agreed to the plan after coming under criticism.

The two campaigns met 7 hours on Friday then broke to review the proposal before meeting again Saturday for 5 hours to work out details and sign off on the formats.

Bush had pushed for more informal debate formats and said nearly two weeks ago said he would accept only one commission debate and two networks debates - one on NBC and another on CNN's ''Larry King Live.'' Gore rejected Bush's idea. Bush aides gave in Thursday and agreed to the three commission debates.

Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, both registering single digits in national polls, most likely will not meet the commission's threshold of 15 percent in media polls for inclusion.

Buchanan lost a legal battle to enter the debates in a ruling released Friday. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Roberts rejected Buchanan's claim against the Federal Election Commission for dismissing his complaint against the debate commission concerning the 15 percent threshold.

Of being selected to be moderator for a second straight election, Lehrer said through a spokesman: ''It's an honor to be asked. I am delighted to do it.''


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