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Gore Presses Bush To Accept All Planned Autumn Debates

By Dan Balz

Seeking to put pressure on George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore’s campaign chairman Tuesday formally endorsed a plan from the Commission on Presidential Debates for a series of prime-time televised forums this fall and called on the Texas governor to agree quickly to participate.

Bush denied that he was attempting to duck prime-time encounters with Gore, telling reporters that he would “welcome prime-time debates” during the fall. “Who said we don’t want prime-time exposure?” the GOP nominee said on his chartered airplane Tuesday.

But his advisers said he would explore more than four dozen pending invitations from news organizations and other groups before deciding which to accept, and his campaign manager said it was possible Bush would participate in a forum not held in prime time.

Meanwhile, Gore’s campaign released a Monday letter from chairman William Daley to Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk Jr., co-chairmen of the debates commission, supporting the commission schedule. Daley said the 90-minute forums broadcast on all the major networks would “give the greatest number of voters the chance to hear the candidates directly.”

The flaring of the debate over debates was one more sign of the growing intensity of the presidential campaign, with Bush and Gore each attempting to gain the high ground by suggesting that the other was attempting to duck debates.

Gore, known as a fierce debater, has long called for as many encounters as possible, but lately has seized on the commission plan as the framework for general election debates. Gore has said he would consider additional debates if Bush agrees to accept the proposal from the commission, which has sponsored all debates since 1988.

Bush, seeking to lower expectations about his performance in the face-to-face encounters while still appearing eager to debate, has kept the door open to other invitations that might be seen as less intense or competitive. Bush advisers said it was Gore who was backing away from commitments he has made to accept debates from groups other than the commission.

Two weeks ago, Bush said he and running mate Dick Cheney would participate in three presidential and two vice presidential debates, more than have ever been held. And Tuesday the Bush camp sought to rebut assertions that the Texas governor, by refusing to agree to the commission schedule, was trying to diminish the audience for what has traditionally been one of the most important events of every presidential campaign.

“We feel that we have a lot of options and that Governor Bush as the nominee and the person who’s participating in the debate ought to have some say as to what kind of debate that is, to make sure that it’s a substantive and thoughtful debate,” said Bush’s communications director Karen Hughes.

Daley said Bush should agree as a starting point to participate in the commission debates. The commission schedule calls for presidential debates on Oct. 3, Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, with the vice presidential debate set for Oct. 5.

In his letter, Daley told Kirk and Fahrenkopf that the Democrats were willing to schedule a second debate between Cheney and Gore’s running mate, Joseph Lieberman, as Bush has proposed.