The US Presidential Elections: Dan quails at prospect of the great debate

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WASHINGTON - Thanks to George Bush, the great debates have moved a step nearer, writes Rupert Cornwell. But this week's surprise White House initiative appears to have terrified the Vice-President, Dan Quayle, before his two proposed television debates with Senator Al Gore. Humble Dan, it would appear, fears he did not go to the right school.

'I'm at a big disadvantage,' Mr Quayle said in Detroit yesterday. 'He (Mr Gore) grew up in Washington DC as the son of a wealthy US Senator and went to the most expensive private schools, while I'm the product of public schools.' The truth is worse still: Mr Gore later attended the ultimate elitist nest of Harvard, scarcely less of a sin than Bill Clinton's exposure to those 'professional Oxford debaters' of which Mr Bush makes so much.

But it looks certain that the debates are on. Mr Bush's call for four consecutive Sunday evening encounters with Mr Clinton, plus two Gore-Quayle debates, has broken the deadlock - and caught the Democrats off balance.

Calling the President's proposal 'a ploy', the Governor of Arkansas is sticking to his position that the original schedule laid down by the bi-partisan Presidential Debates Commission be adhered to, and is demanding that Mr Bush (and Ross Perot if he re-enters the campaign, as looks likely today) turn up in San Diego, California, on Sunday. The problem, according to Mr Clinton, is that the Bush dates would clash with a televised baseball play-off and the World Series games. Moreover, a final debate on 1 November would be so close to election day on 3 November that a candidate who made a gaffe would be left no time to repair the damage.

Out in the real world of the economy, the news is unremittingly bleak for Mr Bush. After Tuesday's announcement of a downturn in the August leading indicators, portending a possible 'triple dip recession', yesterday brought word of a 6 per cent fall in new home sales, despite the lowest mortgage rates in 20 years.