INSIDE THE BELTWAY: So what's the verdict on the debate debate? The Bush team's judgement is highly debatable

Now that the debate debate is over, it's worth trying to figure out why it even existed. For those of you with short memories, Texas Gov. George W. Bush proposed, once the political conventions and the Labor Day milestones had passed, that the candidates reject the recommendation by a bipartisan commission for three presidential candidate debates on prime time network TV. He sought instead to hold the debates on CNN's Larry King Live and NBC's Sunday morning news program Meet the Press with Tim Russert.

Now that the debate debate is over, it's worth trying to figure out why it even existed. For those of you with short memories, Texas Gov. George W. Bush proposed, once the political conventions and the Labor Day milestones had passed, that the candidates reject the recommendation by a bipartisan commission for three presidential candidate debates on prime time network TV. He sought instead to hold the debates on CNN's Larry King Live and NBC's Sunday morning news program Meet the Press with Tim Russert.

Now that the debate debate is over, it's worth trying to figure out why it even existed. For those of you with short memories, Texas Gov. George W. Bush proposed, once the political conventions and the Labor Day milestones had passed, that the candidates reject the recommendation by a bipartisan commission for three presidential candidate debates on prime time network TV. He sought instead to hold the debates on CNN's Larry King Live and NBC's Sunday morning news program Meet the Press with Tim Russert.

This proposal was met with instant scorn and rejection by Al Gore's campaign, more significantly by an overwhelming majority of the nation's media and, most significantly, by all the commercial TV networks.

It appeared to all those objectors that Bush was ducking the debates, anxious to confine them to the miniscule audiences of cable and Sunday morning TV. The networks, of course, shrank in horror from the prospect of carrying a cable program or, worse, one from another network.

But the vice president stuck to his guns, and within a week or so the Republican candidate accepted the commission's three-debate plan and tried to make people believe that's what he wanted all along.

What was behind all this bluster and defeat? The inability of a political campaign to turn around quickly and change direction. See, front-runners tend to shun debates fearing they might give a boost to a come-from-behind hopeful challenger.

Briefly put, when the Bush campaign planned its debate strategy, the Texas governor held a comfortable lead in the polls; Gore's campaign was stumbling, and the selection of Dick Cheney as Mr. Bush's running mate had, it was thought, added some experience and gravitas to the campaign.

But by the time the Bush anti-debate proposal was actually put forward in public, Gore had surged into the lead in the polls (six points or so, and climbing); Cheney's voting record and stodgy appearance had done very little to lift the GOP campaign; Sen. Joe Lieberman had become a media star; and Gore himself seemed energized by his party's convention. The roles were reversed, in a way.

But by the time Bush realized he was no longer the front-runner, his tune changed, and he agreed to all the debates.

Gore, on the other hand, who is now in the lead, had no desire to limit debates like previous front-runners, since both he and his handlers think he's at his best in the debate setting and eagerly await the meetings.

Now it is Bush with nothing to lose and Gore full of confidence. Let the games begin.



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