Debates decision sets stage for rest of contest

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The Independent US

In a humiliating climbdown,George W. Bush has agreed to three debates with Al Gore - on the dates and in the places he originally rejected. The only concession wrung by the Bush campaign concerns the format: one debate will take the form of a TV talkshow in which the two candidates sit around a table with the moderator rather than standing at lecterns on stage.

In a humiliating climbdown,George W. Bush has agreed to three debates with Al Gore - on the dates and in the places he originally rejected. The only concession wrung by the Bush campaign concerns the format: one debate will take the form of a TV talkshow in which the two candidates sit around a table with the moderator rather than standing at lecterns on stage.

Agreement came late on Saturday after two days of talks between the two campaigns and the neutral Presidential Debates Commission. The commission, set up in 1987 to prevent just the sort of disputes and brinkmanship that erupted this year, had proposed three debates to be held in Boston, Winston-Salem (North Carolina) and St Louis, from 3 to 16 October. It also proposed one vice-presidential debate.

Mr Gore accepted these proposals in July. The Bush campaign, however, waited before rejecting all but the St Louis debate. Among the objections were the formality of the staging and the first debate's venue, - Boston - which they saw as too closely identified with John F. Kennedy and the Democrats.

They also challenged Mr Gore to two other "debates" in a talkshow format that they had negotiated separately with individual TV channels. When Mr Gore declined, the Bush campaign launched a TV ad accusing the Vice-President - an experienced and cut-throat debater - of backing out of an earlier undertaking to debate Mr Bush "any time, anywhere".

Within a week, however, the Bush campaign's stratagem was backfiring - it was Mr Bush and not Mr Gore who was perceived as unwilling to debate - and the Bush campaign suedfor peace. Mr Bush said he instructed his negotiators to end the "debate about debates" and get on with the campaign.

Behind the Bush climbdown lay the sharp slump in the Texas Governor's fortunes after the Democratic convention last month. Before, Mr Bush was enjoying a double-digit lead in most opinion polls. As the frontrunner, his campaign believed he could afford to be choosy about debates.

Mr Gore's confident performance at the Democratic Party convention, his shift to the left, and his choice of Joe Lieberman - an Orthodox Jew - as his running mate, are all credited with helping evaporate Mr Bush's lead. In most polls, Mr Gore is now leading, and today's Newsweek poll gives Mr Gore a 12 per cent lead and several large "battleground" states now favour Mr Gore. After months in which Mr Bush was seen as enjoying a big advantage in the state-by-state calculations, that advantage has moved to Mr Gore. The debates could give Mr Bush his last chance of stemming Mr Gore's progress.

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