The debate over debates is on

WASHINGTON - Participants call it an exercise in frustration, bluffing, conniving, outright bickering and unintended hilarity. They fight over the pickiest details, like what the audience should wear.

Few debates in the long presidential campaign season are as intense as the ones leading up to the debates themselves.

Even people in chicken outfits get into the act. A flock of costumed fowl tailed Texas Gov. George W. Bush's father, President Bush, around the country in 1992 until he agreed to debate Bill Clinton.

The pre-debate debate is in full cry again now, with Al Gore accepting invitations by the dozen, Bush languidly concluding ''three is plenty'' and both sides bidding for public relations advantage from the mere process of deciding when and how the two men will meet.

Negotiations over TV debates have been guided by one principle from the start, says Alan Schroeder, an authority on the subject: ''Never give an inch.''

Bush has offered to meet Gore three times and have running mates Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman do so twice. The record for presidential debates on TV is four, set by John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. None was held again until 1976.

Bush has not committed to recommendations of the Commission on Presidential Debates for three presidential matchups and one between running mates, all in October. The Gore campaign accused Bush of shopping around for a format that fewer people would watch, like the Sunday morning talk shows.

''It is unprecedented in modern times for a major party candidate to try to stiff the prime-time commission debates,'' charged Gore, a more experienced debater. The Bush campaign pointed out that President Clinton and Bob Dole only had two debates in 1996 despite the commission's recommendation for three.

Schroeder, whose book ''Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV'' is coming out next month, says Bush has been following the classic pattern of front-runners who play hard to get or insist on the most favorable terms.

With polls suggesting the race has tightened, he said, it is questionable how much longer the Republican candidate can do that.

At the same time, he doesn't believe Democrat Gore wants to debate nearly as often as he says he does.

''There's some hubris involved in Gore accepting so many invitations,'' he said. ''He has this pattern of proposing a lot of debates as a means of seeming open.''

Gore campaign chairman William Daley talked briefly with his Bush counterpart, Don Evans, on Monday, and asked Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and former Fannie Mae chairman Jim Johnson to help with debate negotiations.

The Bush campaign said Tuesday no direct negotiations with Gore operatives were imminent.

Instead, Bush campaign chairman Joe Allbaugh and Andy Card, who was chairman of the party's national convention, will talk with the more than 40 organizations that have offered to sponsor debates, said Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan.

Debates in a competitive presidential contest can draw audiences rivaling those for anything on TV except the Super Bowl. With so many people watching, details matter.

In what was later regarded as a masterstroke, Clinton told aides in 1992 to try to get the Bush campaign to go along with a town-hall format, which he had used to good effect in the primaries, for one of his three debates with George Bush and Ross Perot.

''I remember thinking, Bush will never go for that,'' said Paul Begala, a Clinton strategist from that campaign. When he did, ''we were amazed.'' Bush's people said later they thought their man was good, too, with small groups of voters.

But in that Richmond, Va., debate, citizen Marisa Hall asked Bush how the national debt affected him personally and he flubbed the answer. ''God bless him,'' Begala recalls saying when that happened.

President Bush was seen checking his watch twice during the debate. His campaign's polling showed that a recent rise in his support stalled after that night.

Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush are seen as fairly evenly matched in the pre-debate debate negotiations, unlike many other campaigns where a candidate lagging in polls and almost desperate to debate was ultimately forced to accept his opponent's terms.

Michael Dukakis, six inches shorter than George Bush, got little in his 1988 negotiations except a ramp to make him higher at the lectern, said Schroeder, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Dole's people dropped the idea of an audience dress code in 1996.

Lee Hanna, a producer of 1980 debates, spoke of the ''frustration and hilarity'' in watching operatives for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter haggle over every nuance. Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, called the process one of ''bluff and counterbluff, scheming, conniving.''


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