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Dole Camp Pushes For Four Presidential, Two Veep Debates

September 12, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Negotiators for Bob Dole and President Clinton opened debate talks Thursday with the Dole camp proposing four one-on-one hour-long presidential face-offs and two vice presidential exchanges.

The Clinton team did not respond directly to the Dole proposal although a senior campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, later called it ``a clever proposal but not serious.″

The negotiators broke off talks after about two hours to await a recommendation by the Commission on Presidential Debates on whether Ross Perot should be part of the debates.

Commission Co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf promised a recommendation on Perot by noon Tuesday. The privately financed, nonpartisan commission has sponsored presidential debates since 1988.

Perot’s national coordinator Russell Verney was excluded from Thursday’s session, but marched into the meeting room uninvited. By that time, the meeting was already breaking up.

The Dole campaign does not want Perot to share the debate stage; the Clinton camp does.

The commission has proposed 90-minute presidential debates for Sept. 25 in St. Louis, Oct. 9 in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Oct. 16 in San Diego, Calif. It proposed a vice presidential debate for Oct. 2 in Hartford, Conn. The candidates are not bound by the recommendations.

The Clinton campaign told the Dole team that the president did not want the first debate to be on or around Oct. 25 because he is speaking at the United Nations that week, according to participants.

Otherwise, the Clinton camp favors the three 90-minute presidential debates and one vice presidential face-off recommended by the commission.

Former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, Dole’s chief debate negotiator, proposed an additional presidential and an additional vice presidential debate. All six debates would occur between Sept. 25 and Oct. 25.

``We believe the debates should be one hour in length and have a single moderator,″ Campbell said. ``President Clinton is a world-class debater; someone who can charm the birds out of trees. We will be hard-pressed to understand why the president would not want to debate Bob Dole, one-on-one, four times.″

But the senior Clinton official called the proposal ``more debates and less debating,″ noting that the four hour-long presidential debates proposed by the Dole camp adds up to half an hour less than the three hour-and-a-half debates proposed by the commission.

``We will not do less than an hour and a half,″ said the Clinton official. ``We believe that two hours would be even more appropriate.″

Clinton’s chief negotiator, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, told reporters after the session he would not directly respond to the Dole proposal.

``We just listened. It’s always interesting,″ Kantor said. ``We made no decisions. We heard a lot of ruminations. We just listened carefully.″

A Democratic official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Clinton-Gore campaign wanted no more than three presidential debates, citing precedent and the belief that Dole was anxious to use the debates to his advantage.

The negotiations were designed to settle the number of debates, their format and whether Perot should share the stage.

Dole, lagging by double digits in the polls, cast the exchanges as an opportunity to shake up the race.

``President Clinton is a very smooth talker,″ Dole said at a rally in Georgetown, Ky. ``I’ll be facing him in debates one of these days. I think if I show up, I win because he’s supposed to be so good.″

In addition to the four presidential debates, Dole’s team wants two face-offs between Jack Kemp and Vice President Al Gore.

An advocate for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader also showed up for Thursday’s meeting, but waited in the lobby.

``We weren’t invited. We’re not here to make a scene,″ said John Bodin, of the Draft Nader for President Clearinghouse. Bodin said his organization hoped for four-way presidential debates among Clinton, Dole, Perot and Nader.

Verney contends Perot and his running mate, economist Pat Choate, should be included in any presidential debates.

Choate, campaigning in Philadelphia, dismissed the debate commission as ``nothing but a front group for the Democratic and Republican parties.″

``What are these guys afraid of?″ he asked.

The Dole campaign has suggested that if Perot is included, then the debates also should be open to Nader, who Republicans believe could siphon votes from Clinton.

Perot contends he should be included in any debate, as he was in 1992, when he won 19 percent of the vote as an independent candidate. However, most national polls find him in registering in the single digits this year.

The commission’s criteria for who should be included in the debates are vague, but state that participants must have ``a realistic chance of being elected.″

Asked about that test, Verney quipped: ``I think in spite of that criteria, Senator Dole should be included in the debates.″

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