Bush, Gore Teams to Meet on Debates

Saturday, September 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Advisers to George W. Bush and Al Gore are ready to meet next week for the first time to negotiate details of a fall series of televised debates between the presidential rivals.

Bush late Friday dropped his insistence that the first encounter be held Tuesday on a special 60-minute evening edition of NBC's ``Meet the Press.''

He told his campaign chairman, Don Evans, to contact the Commission on Presidential Debates to tell it they were ready to talk.

That broke an impasse in the ``debate on the debates'' between the two camps — and all but assured there would be at least two commission-sponsored confrontations.

It came as Republican Bush, trying to stem a Gore advance in the polls, worked to put his campaign back on track.

``Governor Bush wants there to be debates, and believes the American people are best served by having debates,'' said Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes.

``We are pleased that the Bush campaign has agreed to meet with the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. We look forward to that meeting.'' William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, said late Friday.

Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, said in a statement that the Bush campaign had accepted its invitation to meet. ``We are working to schedule a meeting with Bush and Gore campaigns representatives next week,'' she said.

The commission, which has overseen all presidential debates since 1988, recommended a series of three 90-minute prime-time sessions, all in October.

Bush had agreed to only one of those debates, but said he was willing to do two other 60-minute encounters on individual network interview shows — next week on ``Meet the Press'' and later on CNN's ``Larry King Live.''

The Gore campaign balked, saying they would only go on those shows if Bush agreed to the full set of commission debates.

Because Gore had previously said he would debate Bush ``anytime, anywhere,'' Bush attempted to portray the Democratic vice president, an experienced debater, as seeking to duck the debates.

However, some top Republicans saw that strategy as backfiring, making Bush look like the reluctant debater.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who campaigned with Bush on Friday in Pittsburgh, told reporters Bush ``has made his point'' in tweaking Gore on the debate, but that it now was time to move on.

Bush has been anxious to get the talk about debate negotiations off center stage. Republicans concerned about Gore's surge in the polls have complained the topic has been a distraction for the campaign and for voters Bush is trying to reach.

One possibility being discussed at Bush's Austin campaign headquarters was accepting two commission-sponsored debates while trying to secure a less formal, non-commission session to start off the series.

However, Hughes said the prospect of a debate next week was no longer likely, nor did she believe there could be one before the mid-September start of the Olympics.

In 1996, President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole held two debates.

Bush was spending the weekend on his central Texas ranch, bringing with him a thick briefing book to help him prepare for the eventual debates, Hughes said.

He campaigns Monday and Tuesday in Florida and Missouri before embarking on a West Coast swing.

On Friday, Bush exhibited a promised change in gears in his campaign, spending more time with individuals and less in formal settings.

He shared coffee and spent more than an hour in face-to-face politicking at a telecommunications-equipment factory near Pittsburgh.

``This is what I'm good at,'' Bush declared. ``I like meeting people, my fellow citizens. I like interfacing with them.''

Later, he told supporters in Springfield, Mo., ``I look forward to taking my case directly to the people of this country.''

He had promised on Thursday to do more people-to-people appearances in the face of criticism from some top Republicans that he had not been energetic enough in countering Gore's rise in the polls.