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Challenging debates challenges parties' power

It looked like an ordinary presidential campaign spat. Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore cannot agree on a schedule for debates.

Beneath the surface of this little political dustup, however, lies a much more important struggle between Bush and his own party _ or perhaps even a struggle between all those men and women who want to be president and the nation's two-party system.

Bush took his stand last week when he declared that he would attend only one of three, 90-minute debates scheduled by the Commission on Presidential Debates. He suggested that the other two debates should occur on news programs hosted by NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Larry King. Gore, in response, said he was sticking to the commission plan.

Of course, it is not unusual for presidential candidates to quarrel over just about every aspect of the debates in advance. But usually these disagreements are confined to issues such as: How many people will be asking questions? Will there be a live studio audience? Will each candidate get ample opportunity for rebuttal?

Bush's challenge was more sweeping, going directly to the authority of the commission to make arrangements for the debates. If Bush's proposal were to succeed, which now looks unlikely, it would have been seen as undermining the commission.

In spurning the commission, Bush was going against the the best interests of his own Republican Party. The commission was established in 1988 by agreement of the Republican and Democratic parties to give the parties some influence in the process.

Before the creation of the commission, the debates had been run since 1976 by the League of Women Voters. Republican and Democratic party leaders hated that arrangement, which they felt put them at the mercy of an uncontrollable group of independent-minded, do-good women.

Not only did the parties help to create the commission, but they also continue to control it. The co-chairmen of the commission are Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Paul Kirk, both loyalists who had served previously as chairmen of their parties.

Although the current GOP nominee may not like the arrangements for this year's commission-sponsored debates, the Republican and Democratic parties have an interest in retaining control of this process long after Bush has disappeared from the national scene.

Of course, it was probably only a matter of time until a nominee decided to challenge the commission's authority. Over the past few decades, candidates have become increasingly independent of their parties, mostly because they have an ability to raise more money than their party organizations.

Unlike presidential nominees in an earlier era, Bush and Gore were not actually selected by their party leaders. They selected themselves, and then they persuaded a majority of the people in their party to support them.

Therefore, they don't owe their parties as much as earlier candidates in our history. So when faced with a choice between their own short-term self-interest and the long-term interests of their party, they feel free to go their own way.

Yet the commission still holds some sway over the nominees because it can legally exclude third-party contenders from the debates _ something the nominees usually prefer. The commission has a rule, which has survived several court challenges, saying that third-party candidates, in order to be eligible to participate in the presidential debates, must demonstrate through polling that they have the support of at least 15 percent of the voters.

If the nominees choose instead to arrange the debates independently of the commission, they would have to contend with these third-party challenges themselves. This is apparently one reason why Bush has started to back down on his demand to debate Gore at NBC and CNN.

Late Friday, Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, announced that Bush had finally agreed to send a representative to a meeting this week that will also include a Gore aide. As a result, it was expected that the two candidates would agree to at least two commission-sponsored debates before the November election.

Of course, you cannot blame candidates for being a bit fussy about the debate arrangements. How the candidates perform in the debates will likely be the most decisive factor in deciding who wins this year's election, particularly since it is shaping up to be a close contest.

Bush preferred his proposal because he feels comfortable in television interviews and he does not feel comfortable in a formal debate setting. Gore is believed to have an advantage in formal debates because he, as a long-time politician, is familiar with the issues and has debated his adversaries on many occasions.

At the same time, because Gore is an experienced debater, expectations for Bush's performance may be lower. He could win the debate simply by showing himself to be Gore's equal at handling complex issues.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. Like Bush, many future presidential nominees can be expected to challenge the debate commission as he has done. It is an institution every bit as temporal as the politicians who created it.