Dithering Dubya's Debate Dilemma: A Debate

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George W. Bush has agreed to debate in prime time, but not on a format

First he hesitated in agreeing to debate Al Gore in prime time. Having then said yes, George W. Bush is now er-ing and um-ing over whether he will face off with Gore under the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent organisation that has been the prime sponsor of such forums in the last three elections.

Has Gore taken the upper hand by pressing Bush on the subject, or is in danger of being seen as a nag? Has Bush been thrown "off message" by the debate talk, or was he having a bad week anyway? Important stuff, or just froth thrown up by reporters in search of a story?

TIME.com's Jessica Reaves and Frank Pellegrini found themselves at the opposite end of those questions — and so they decided to debate about it. This being and Internet site, they did it by email; here's the transcript:

Jessica: As far as I can tell, Bush has backed himself into a corner on the debate issue. Gore has been fairly aggressive in his attacks, calling for Bush to agree on specifics like dates, times and locations, and Bush hasn't really responded until recently — and by now Gore has managed to raise a lot of questions about Bush's willingness to debate.

Frank: Yes, reporters' appetite for pushing Bush on debates has nudged him off- message, but so have prescription drugs, the tax-cut plan, and Dick Cheney's golden parachute. Bush is having a lousy week, but he's not obligated to choose a debate schedule now just because Gore is standing around making clucking sounds and calling Bush chicken.

Jessica: It just doesn't make sense for Bush to react so defensively to Gore's challenges to debate. Bush would be much better off just sitting down with Gore and establishing a time and place. I'm not saying Gore is necessarily right to attack Bush's reticence, but that's not really the point — politically, Gore has scored a few points here: The public has focused on Bush's refusal to commit, and that's only helping to solidify Gore's image as the so-called adult in this race. If Gore can keep the debate pressure on without sounding like a nag, he's bound to rack up a few points.

Frank: To my ears, Gore's already nagging. Bush has said he'll debate Gore, he just hasn't said when. Is Gore's schedule so tight he needs to know right away? Yes, Bush needs to be a little more graceful in fielding the questions, but now — when he's on the defensive about it — would be a lousy time to cave.

This is a negotiation, and Gore has shown his cards already — he can't turn down anything Bush says now, after goading him so relentlessly. The debate schedule, when it's hammered out and agreed uopn, will get at least a day's headlines, and if Bush can hold out, and wring some concessions out of the over-eager Gore, he'll get his due for that in the papers.

Jessica: I don't think Gore is nagging; he's strategically highlighting a strength. Gore's much-trumpeted readiness to debate may be annoying to Bush, but it's a reality the governor is going to have to deal with. And I don't blame him for skirting the issue for as long as possible — if I were Bush, I'd be terrified to face Gore as well. Bush does not do well when he's pushed off-script, and Gore's people are obviously going to focus their attentions on leading their opponent down the slippery slope of malapropism.

There's a risk here for Gore as well, of course: The more his debating skills and intellectual superiority are hyped in the press, the more performance anxiety is bound to well up when the big night finally arrives. As far as expectations go, Gore is his own worst enemy.

Frank: Well, that's exactly the point — when the debates actually happen, none of this nitpicking and needling is going to be remembered. What matters for Bush is how he actually performs in that first face-off (and then the last one), and although he's got a good chance to pull a Reagan on Gore's Carter, ceding ground on substance and winning on style, it's certainly not in his interest to raise expectations of his own chances. Meanwhile, Gore is hyping himself right into a no-win situation.

Bush needs to handle the debate question the way he's been trying to run his campaign — as if he is simply a bigger man than the yipping, sniping Gore. In a week when the race has tightened and everbody is looking for Bush's flaws, he's done a lousy job of it, and he has to do better at claiming the high road. His handling of the debate question has perhaps offered his campaign a lesson or two, but I doubt we'll see any lasting damage.