Bush, Gore bicker over debates

Monday, September 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NAPERVILLE, ILL.-George W. Bush stood by his offer for three presidential debates, including one next week, branding rival Al Gore's quick rejection as "Washington doublespeak." Gore maintained his resistance to the Texas governor's proposal.

Speaking at a rally before a Labor Day parade in this Chicago suburb, Bush taunted Gore for not accepting the offer. "My opponent said he would debate me anyplace, anytime, anywhere," Bush said Monday. "I said fine. Why don't we just show up ... and discuss our differences.

"All of a sudden the words 'anytime, anywhere' don't mean anything," he added to cheers from several thousand supporters. "It's time to get some plain-spoken folks in Washington."

Gore, meanwhile, insisted that Bush must first accept the three 90-minute debates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Gore has accepted those offers, saying they will reach the widest possible viewing audience and that Bush's proposal would not.

"This is not about what is best for George W. Bush or what is best for Al Gore. It's about what's best for the American people," Gore said on NBC's "Today" program.

"It's become a tradition to get all the networks together and give all of the American people the right to see three 90-minute, prime-time debates," he added.

Few in either party expect Republican Bush's overture to be the final word on debates as the campaigns maneuver to arrange terms that best play to the respective strengths of each candidate while exploiting the rival's weaknesses.

After a difficult two weeks that had seen Gore's poll numbers rise, Bush strategists sought a way to steal attention from the vice president's 27-hour Labor Day tour.

They did it with a hastily arranged news conference Sunday afternoon in Austin, Texas, with Bush proposing the first debate next week on Sept. 12 during a special prime-time edition of NBC's "Meet the Press."

It would be followed Oct. 3 in Los Angeles on CNN's "Larry King Live" and Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.

"I have a simple message: Let the debates begin," Bush said.

Gore quickly rejected the offer, but told reporters he held out hope.

"I'm hopeful that we'll eventually have all three commission debates," said Gore.

Only one of the events Bush accepted _ the final one in St. Louis _ was proposed by the bipartisan commission that has overseen presidential debates since 1988.

The Bush proposal also includes two vice presidential debates: Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a later forum yet to be decided.

Gore's campaign chairman, William Daley, was blunter, saying: "We reject George Bush's plan to shortchange Americans by cutting tens of millions of people out of the presidential debate audience."

Bush aides retorted by noting that both CNN and NBC had offered to make the program available to the other networks.

They emphasized that both the CNN and NBC debates on their list had previously been accepted by Gore.

The Bush campaign was looking for a more informal setting with a single, preferably noncombative moderator.

"We expect the vice president to keep his word," said Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "This is a fundamental question of credibility."

Jockeying for advantage between the two camps almost always precedes presidential debates.

Gore maintains that the three events proposed by the commission will reach the widest audience, and suggests Bush is trying to duck the high-profile meetings in the final weeks of the campaign.

Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said the debates Bush agreed to would occur during prime viewing hours and that both CNN and NBC have agreed to make video feeds of the events simultaneously available to the other networks.

"These were important criteria for us," Evans said.

Bush also said the debates would be carried on the Internet.

At his Chicago news conference, Bush was asked what the next step would be _ given the Gore campaign's rejection of his proposal. "I've still got confidence he'll keep to his word" and accept any and all debates, he replied.

Republican officials said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has been tentatively chosen to play the role of Gore in practice sessions for the debates.

Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, said Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio has agreed to stand in as Democrat Joseph Lieberman in practice sessions for the vice presidential debates.