Though the first of three scheduled presidential debates is only three weeks away, details are far from being finalized, including reaching agreement on the most critical question: Should Ross Perot be invited?
The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored the forums since 1988, is trying to answer that question through a detailed process reminiscent of the background checks presidential campaigns run on prospective running mates.
The commission’s staff is currently assembling a weighty briefing book on third-party candidates - including financial and polling data, samples of media coverage, transcripts of interviews, platforms, indications of grass-roots support and a listing of which candidates have qualified for which state ballots.
Commission executive director Janet Brown said Wednesday that informal discussions with the Dole and Clinton campaigns turned up no problems with the commission’s proposal, which includes three presidential debates (Sept. 25, Oct. 9 and 16) and one vice-presidential forum (Oct. 2). The commission has proposed 90-minute debates, all with a single moderator; one debate would have a town-meeting format that would allow citizens to question the contenders.
But interviews with campaign officials suggest that the commission’s proposal will serve as a guidepost rather than the final word.
“How many debates there are, the dates, who participates, what the formats are - all are subject to discussion,” said Dole communications director John Buckley.
The most obvious potential snag is Perot, the Reform Party nominee who got 19 percent of the vote as an independent candidate in 1992 but who is polling in single digits right now.
Interviews indicate that the Clinton camp has no problems including Perot, while the Dole camp would prefer that Perot not be included unless Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, a nemesis on Clinton’s left, is also added. Polls show Perot taking more support away from Dole than Clinton.