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Clinton should back free TV time

Free TV time for presidential candidates is one of those rare political ideas that has a strong advocate, bipartisan support and acceptance from the television networks. So it's disappointing that this promising experiment in campaign reform may not make it into the 1996 presidential race because of an unexpected obstacle _ President Clinton.

Clinton has often sought the spotlight to voice his support for changes in political campaigns. Earlier this year, he said he favored a campaign reform bill that included free TV time for candidates. Now that he has a chance to live by those words, he's not so sure.

He is withholding his support for a promising concept presented by the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. It wants to give the major presidential candidates a nightly forum during the fall campaign to address voters without filtering the message through reporters or concealing it in attack ads. The coalition, headed by former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor and former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, has won support from Republicans and Democrats, from Ralph Reed on the right and Norman Lear on the left.

Facing such an array of free-time advocates, the networks agreed to provide air time. FOX offered an hour on election eve and CBS said it would make time on its morning and evening news shows for candidates to speak on certain issues. NBC, ABC, CNN and PBS quickly joined the cause, although each network imposed different limitations. Some balked at giving up any of their valuable prime time.

The coalition has a uniform format in mind. It wants the networks to carry simultaneously a series of candidate speeches, each at least 2{ minutes long, during prime time. That way, even channel surfers couldn't avoid their civic duty. In an effort to force the networks agree to the plan, the coalition sought the support of President Clinton and Bob Dole. The Dole camp, which is struggling to pump life into its campaign, quickly agreed.

The president has not given the coalition plan his approval, maybe because an incumbent has the advantage when it comes to getting on network TV. If the experiment is delayed much longer, it will be too late for the 1996 election.

Clinton is a master at playing both sides of an issue, but he can't be for campaign reform and against its implementation. Time is running short, and Clinton needs to sign on before it is too late. It would be shameful if the president were to deny voters this opportunity to hear directly from the candidates.