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Parties And League Fight Over Who Will Sponsor Presidential Debates

February 18, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The two major political parties on Wednesday claimed their ″rightful responsibility″ to sponsor the 1988 presidential debates, but the League of Women Voters said the parties are trying to ″steal the debates from the American voters.″

With more than 18 months to go before the parties even select their presidential nominees, the fight over who will put on general election debates in the fall of 1988 became a public squabble at a pair of news conferences.

The chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties announced their Commission on Presidential Debates to start work on 1988 general election debates between their parties’ nominees - and not incidentally, to take sponsor’s role away from the league, which has sponsored such debates since 1976.

″We believe the Democratic and Republican parties are making history today by assuming their rightful responsiblity for the single most effective voter education program by which the American people will be helped in ... the selection of a president and vice president of the United States,″ Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk told reporters.

″The extremely competitive nature of the two parties will ensure that we will reach the best possible agreement for all concerned, most importantly for the voters of this nation,″ said Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. at an unusual joint news conference.

While Kirk said the commission would not engage in ″a debate about debates,′ ′ the League of Women Voters immediately promised to fight to keep its role.

″The League of Women Voters Education Fund will sponsor the general election debates in 1988,″ vowed league president Nancy Neuman at a news conference following the one held by the party chairmen.

″The debates are the last thing left that is not managed by the campaign consultants and the media professionals,″ she said. ″If the parties sponsor the debates, we will see two canned campaign commercials that will go on for 90 minutes and I don’t think the American people will learn anything from that.

″I think they are trying to steal the debates from the American voters, not from the league.″

She said that the public would feel any party-sponsored debates would be rigged and would be ″little more than political pillow fights.″

The league has already announced its plans for primary debates among the presidential hopefuls, a role the parties said they did not want to assume.

The party chairmen were complimentary of the league’s role, even as they sought to take it away.

″While we are appreciative of the constructive role the League of Women Voters played in developing the ebates, we accept the principal thesis ... that the two parties stand the best chance of institutionalizing the debates,″ said Fahrenkopf.

Ms. Neuman replied that the league was being patronized, perhaps in a sexist manner.

″The parties are saying, ’You have done all the hard work. Now let us take them over,‴ she said. ″Occasionally, I do feel the league is being patronized a bit.″

She suggested the parties may be somewhat sexist in their motivation, but added: ″We should not the use the sexism charge as the main issue.″

The party chairmen emphasized repeatedly that party sponsorship would make the debates more likely during each presidential election.

But each conceded that the final decision whether to debate - and in whose debates to participate - will remain with the eventual nominees of their parties.

Both Kirk and Fahrenkopf said they had talked to the presidential hopefuls in their parties and that all have embraced the concept of party-sponsored debates.

Kirk even suggested league officials could advise the parties in their effort.

Asked why the parties should seek to do something that the league has apparently handled well, Kirk replied:

″We should not abdicate the responsibility that could come to the political parties.″

The party chairmen said the thorny issue of whether third-party candidates should be included in the presidential debates would be addressed by their commission. But Kirk emphasized that the debates primarily would be forums for the major-party candidates.

In 1980, independent candidate John Anderson sought to be included in debates with then-President Carter and Ronald Reagan. Eventually, Reagan and Anderson had a debate that Carter skipped and then Carter and Reagan faced each other in a one-on-one confrontation.

In addition to the chairmen of the two national parties, the members of the parties’ debates commission are Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif.; Gov. Kay Orr, R- Neb.; Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev.; David Norcross, RNC adviser; former Sen. John Culver, D-Iowa; Richard Moe, DNC adviser; Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League; and Pamela Harriman, Democratic fund-raiser.

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