Bush offers debate to both rivals

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - In a surprise bid to claw back the political initiative, President Bush last night challenged Bill Clinton, his Democratic rival, to a series of debates on each of the last four Sunday nights of the campaign. Ross Perot, the independent, could also join in if he becomes a full-scale candidate later this week, writes Rupert Cornwell.

If it is accepted, Mr Bush's offer will break a deadlock which threatened to destroy the chances of any debate being held this election season. Minutes before he made the proposal on a campaign stop in Tennessee, the bipartisan Presidential Debates Commission cancelled the planned 4 October encounter in San Diego, following Mr Bush's refusal to accept its single moderator format. Speaking in Clarksville, the President suggested that two of the debates, which would start on Sunday 11 October, should have a single moderator, and two the panel of questioners on which the White House has hitherto insisted. He also called for two vice-presidential debates before election day on 3 November.

This latest ploy by the Bush camp is an attempt to shake off the damaging impression that the President was frightened to face Mr Clinton head-on. But it almost certainly reflects a judgement by his campaign manager, James Baker, that the likely re-entry of Mr Perot into both the presidential race and the debating arena changes the dynamics of the campaign to his advantage.

According to a new ABC/Washington Post poll, Mr Bush trails his Democratic opponent by only 9 per cent, compared to a 21 per cent deficit a week ago. In a three-horse race, Mr Perot captures 14 per cent and the Clinton lead shrinks to a bare five points.