The returns are in. There will be three, prime time presidential debates. Republican nominee George W. Bush, who has been hemming and hawing, told reporters on his campaign plane last week that he "would welcome all three being in prime time," according to The New York Times.
Vice President Al Gore, who has said he will accept any and all debates, last week officially accepted the proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the informal body charged with determining times and places for the debates.
Bush had not signed off on the commission plan at press time, but most observers say he is likely to. "I am confident that this plan is going to be the one that is implemented," says Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, which was scheduled to meet with the Bush campaign last Friday.
The commission has proposed three presidential debates and one vice presidential face-off. The presidential debates will be Oct. 3, 11 and 17 in Boston; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and St. Louis, respectively. The vice presidential debate is scheduled Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.
"Bush [had] to accept debates," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies. "If you don't, you look afraid or arrogant, and Bush can afford to be neither."
The Bush camp was specifically balking at the Boston site because Massachusetts is firmly Democratic territory, with no Republican members of Congress and a liberal-leaning Republican governor who fell into the job when William Weld resigned to try to become an ambassador. The debate would be held at the University of Massachusetts, with the John F. Kennedy library nearby.
"I can see why the Bush party would object to [Boston]. It would be easy to stack an audience or an auditorium or even the crowds outside the auditorium, which can affect the debate itself," says Sabato.
Presidential debates have been an important part of presidential campaigns since 1960, when they are generally believed to have helped John Kennedy edge out Richard Nixon in the election. The Commission on Presidential Debates has been handling the logistics since 1987.
Observers say the Bush camp is making their man look balky on purpose to lower expectations about his performance. "It reminds me of that old Brer Rabbit story," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "Don't throw me in that old briar patch."