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Bush yields to debate proposal

George W. Bush capitulates to three 90-minute prime-time TV appearances with Vice President Al Gore.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush dropped his negotiating demands and agreed Thursday to three high-profile debates with Vice President Al Gore next month _ on the same dates and at the same sites a bipartisan commission proposed all along.

The candidates will face off Oct. 3 at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, again Oct. 11 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and on Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis. The three 90-minute sessions, sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, will be carried live by all major television networks and some cable outlets.

Negotiators also agreed to a vice presidential debate between Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joseph Lieberman on Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. All four debates will start at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The agreement, announced after a four-hour meeting in Washington of top officials of the Bush and Gore campaigns and representatives of the Commission on Presidential Debates, means that Bush and Gore will debate under all the original conditions laid out months ago by the panel, which has organized the nationally televised forums in every presidential election since 1988.

The accord amounted to a wholesale retreat by the Bush campaign from its efforts over the last two weeks to impose its own schedule, moving some of the debates from campuses to television studios, shortening them from 90 minutes to 60 minutes, and designating moderators like Larry King and Tim Russert.

"The major thing is that the debate debate is over," said Paul G. Kirk Jr., the former head of the Democratic Party who is co-chairman of the debate commission. Kirk told reporters after the meeting that the session had been without rancor. But he added, "Some things we were not flexible on," like the notion of moving any of the sites of the debates.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the commission and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "The American people are going to have a full airing of all the issues in this campaign."

The formats must be worked out, and the campaigns were to meet on that today. Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, said the Texas governor is still pressing for the "more free-flowing and more spontaneous format" that had been a major part of his earlier debate plans.

Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, both regis- tering single digits in national polls, most likely will not meet the commission's threshold of 15 percent in media polls for inclusion. Nader called his exclusion "an outrage" and scheduled a protest rally at the Boston debate site.

With Bush and Gore running close in most recent surveys of public opinion, both camps view the debates as potentially pivotal events. They were deliberately scheduled to avoid competition with the Olympics and the World Series. A 1992 debate pitting Bush's father against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot attracted about 92-million viewers.

The two sides hope to settle the details by the end of the week. The commission favors a mix of formats that would include a town hall meeting with questions from the audience, and another session with the candidates seated at a table with a single moderator. The commission plan calls for direct exchanges between the candidates at all three debates.

After weeks of sparring by news release, the Bush and Gore campaigns agreed on the debate schedule at a closed-door meeting with commission officials in Washington. The meeting came after Bush abandoned his proposal to seek 60-minute joint interviews with prominent TV interviewers on single networks as substitutes for two of the three 90-minute debates scheduled by the bipartisan commission.

Both sides professed to be pleased with the outcome.

"We have agreed to the sites; we have agreed to the times," Donald L. Evans, Bush's campaign chairman, said. "The governor is very eager to debate. He is looking forward to afree-flowing, substantive, real and genuine discussion of all the issues."

William M. Daley, the chairman of Gore's campaign, concurred. "This is good because the American people want to hear from these people in formal settings that give them the opportunity to express what they will do as the next president of the United States," Daley said.

Both major presidential candidates have already started preparing for their encounters. Bush and his aides have reviewed tapes of Gore's previous debates and have enlisted Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to play Gore in practice sessions.

Former Rep. Tom Downey of New York was portraying Bush in Gore's debate rehearsals until Wednesday, when he received an unsolicited package by mail that appeared to contain videotape of Bush's debate preparations. Downey turned the package over to the FBI and withdrew from further involvement in the debates.

Bush spokeswoman Hughes confirmed Thursday that the videotape appeared to be film of Bush's most recent practice session with Gregg, and suggested it must have been stolen.

"Only the most senior members of our team people who have known him for a number of years, are people who would have had legitimate access to those debate tapes, and now it appears whoever obtained it did so in some unethical way," Hughes said. The FBI continues to investigate.

_ Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.