Who Knew Presidential Debates Could Be So Much Fun?

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Undecideds are likely to decide the contest between George Bush and Al Gore

Will voters choose "Who Wants to be Your Next President?" over "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" George W. Bush is publicly betting they will, but may be secretly hoping they won’t.

Sunday, in the latest installment of bickering over debate schedules and locations, Bush proposed an alternative series of presidential debates, refusing to consider more than one of the traditional meetings sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates in favor of, as he puts it, "formats that are more free-flowing." What exactly does that mean? Well, apparently, the by-now familiar sets of NBC’s "Meet the Press" and CNN’s "Larry King Live" fit the bill; Bush has agreed to appear alongside Al Gore on 60-minute primetime versions of both programs. He has also agreed to the location, but not the format, of a CPD debate scheduled to take place October 13 in St. Louis.

Gore rejected Bush’s plan immediately, calling it unfair to the American people. The Vice President had previously accepted both the NBC and CNN debate proposals, but were counting on the 90-minute CPD events as well. The concern, according to the Gore camp, is that debates which favor one network over the others could result in a smaller viewing audience; if "Meet the Press," for example, goes up against ABC’s hit series "NYPD Blue," ABC may not be willing to forgo its ratings — and advertising revenue — to carry an NBC-branded show.

That logic, while potentially leaky (a few networks have already agreed to carry whatever debates the candidates agree on), feeds nicely into Gore’s contention that Bush is hiding from a public forum because he’s afraid of matching Gore on the issues. And unfortunately for the GOP, that will be a tough accusation to disprove: Bush defends his refusal to accept the CDP debates by arguing he’s giving the American people "a chance to see the candidates in a range of different settings," but his apparent reluctance to sink his teeth into the traditional, specifics-heavy format favored by the CPD could be seen by voters as cowardice — a perception the Gore crowd is only too happy to encourage.

For his part, Bush has latched on to Gore’s pledge to debate "anytime, anywhere," and has publicly challenged the Vice President to "keep his commitments." And while Bush may get some mileage out of flogging Gore’s vow, the Governor, even as he advertises his alternative proposal, risks drawing even more attention to his own apparent distaste for old-fashioned, response-and-rebuttal, "You’re no Dan Quayle" -style debates.