Candidate debate will allow voters to judge

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Washington Post:

It takes only a day or two of watching the campaign to be reminded of the potential value of presidential debates. Finely tuned, focus-group-tested ad campaigns barrage the battleground states; candidates fly from one staged event to the next, trying to stay on message while at the same time jumping to respond to the latest barb from the other side. Script and spin, spin and script, on trains, planes and Mississippi River paddle wheelers. Though they haven't always delivered, debates offer at least a possibility of cutting through some of that: Put the candidates face to face, ask them questions not of their choosing, and let the voters judge how they handle the moment, and each other.

They are high-stakes encounters, and it's no wonder campaigns put great effort into negotiating as favorable a set of circumstances for their candidates as possible. The Republican and Democratic camps are deep into that mode this week, with Vice President Al Gore's campaign pushing hard for Gov. Bush to accept the debate schedule proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and Gov. Bush saying his campaign is weighing all the 40-odd debate invitations that have been extended to the candidates.

The serious negotiations haven't even started yet, but Mr. Gore's campaign has seized the opportunity to portray Mr. Bush as seeking to limit his exposure in the debates. It is not to Mr. Bush's advantage to let this go on for long. He's already committed to three debates, and said Tuesday that he wants as many people as possible to see them. The debate commission, which has produced the nationally televised general election debates for the past three cycles, has offered a plan that seems to meet that goal. It proposes three 90-minute prime-time debates between Oct. 3 and 17, to be broadcast by all three networks. Each will have a single moderator, one will be a town-hall format with questions from citizens not connected to the campaigns, and all, according to the commission, will encourage direct exchanges between the candidates.

While we'd welcome more debates, including one that includes third-party candidates, this proposal would give a wide audience the chance to evaluate the leading contenders in substantive encounters. If other venues offer exposure as broad and deep as the commission's plan, let's hear about them. Otherwise, Gov. Bush ought to accept the commission's proposal and move on. He is not well served when his campaign seems more interested in dancing around the issue of debates than in actually debating.

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