Spokesmen for Vice President Bush and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) want to make it perfectly clear that their candidates are looking forward to lots of lively debates during the Republican nomination contest. It's just that they're not quite ready for the fun to begin.

Bush has decided not to take part in a Sept. 2 nationally televised debate of GOP presidential contenders. Dole has said if Bush won't show, neither will he.

"It looks like they have a gentleman's agreement," said Warren Steibel, producer of the PBS show "Firing Line," which put on the Democratic debate July 1 that drew all seven candidates. He said he will go ahead with the GOP event, even without the two front-runners.

"We'd love to get George Bush in a debate," said David Keene, a Dole adviser. Meanwhile, those running well behind Dole wouldn't mind engaging him in a two-candidate debate, one of the newest rages of the campaign. One of Dole's competitors, former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, keeps sending notes proposing a two-way debate to air their differences on agriculture policy; Dole isn't interested.

Bush and Dole will change their tune after they formally become candidates sometime after Labor Day. How much after? Dole is looking at October and as for Bush, "You play those cards so close to your vest that they come out your backbone," said Bush political director Rich Bond.