President Bush may skip one of the three debates that have been proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and accepted by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Republican officials said yesterday.
The officials said Bush's negotiating team plans to resist the middle debate, which was to be Oct. 8 in a town meeting format in the crucial state of Missouri.
The Bush-Cheney campaign announced that its debate negotiation team will be led by James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Baker headed the Bush campaign's Florida recount response in 2000 and is the current president's personal envoy on Iraqi debt resolution.
Baker negotiated debates in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. As chief of staff to Bush's father in 1992, he took a cautious stance with the view that a sitting president has little to gain and much to lose in debates, according to accounts at the time.
Bush aides refused to discuss their opening position. Officials familiar with the issue said he plans to accept the commission's first debate, which is to focus on domestic policy, and the third one, which is to focus on foreign policy.
The audience for the second debate, to be at Washington University in St. Louis, was to be picked by the Gallup Organization. The commission said participants should be undecided voters from the St. Louis area.
A presidential adviser said campaign officials were concerned that people could pose as undecided when they actually are partisans.
"It's not a fear of the format," said the adviser, who refused to be identified to avoid annoying Bush. "They want two debates that are focused on clear differences on foreign and domestic policy. We benefit from the differences."
The Democratic team is led by Vernon E. Jordan Jr. The Republican team includes U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and campaign advisers Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin.
Washington University has set up a Web site saying the community "welcomes the nation and the world," has recruited 471 student volunteers and is holding weekly lectures on campaign issues.
The university was host for debates in 1992 and 2000. The commission picked the university in 1996 for a debate that was canceled after President Bill Clinton, an incumbent with a commanding lead in polls, accepted just two.
"That's kind of what we're hearing about the Bush thing right now," said Steve Givens, chairman of the university's debate committee.
Bush plans to accept debates at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Sept. 30 and at Arizona State University in Tempe on Oct. 13. The campaign also plans to participate in a vice presidential debate Oct. 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.