CHICAGO, OCT. 5 -- Democratic presidential candidates, complaining of "too much of a good thing," have launched an effort to limit the number of debates and joint appearances.
Candidates, faced with invitations to 70 debates or joint appearances by mid-March, complain that they are having little time to do anything except prepare for and travel across the nation for such events.
The effort to control the "pacing and proliferation" of debates and forums is expected to come to a head Wednesday afternoon when Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., who has promoted such events as healthy for the party, is scheduled to meet with the managers of the six remaining Democratic candidates.
"None of us are complaining about debates," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "It's just we can only do so many."
Candidates are also having trouble deciding which debates to attend, and are hoping the DNC will help "broker" such events, according to spokesmen.
It seems that almost every special-interest group and media outlet in the early primary and caucus states wants its own debate or forum.
In Iowa, for example, the state home builders' association, the National Council of Retired Persons, the Iowa State Education Association, the Brown and Black Coalition, the Iowa Citizens Action Network, Loras College, Drake University, the Junior League of Waterloo, the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, KTIV-TV in Sioux City and The Des Moines Register are among 38 organizations seeking their own debate or forum.
All want to attract attention to their cause or institution.
National news organizations have also gotten into the act to an extent unknown before.
"Saturday Night Live," an NBC television comedy show, is trying to assemble all the candidates together for a joint appearance this month. "Nightline," an ABC-News show, has asked the candidates and their advisers to take part in "policy games," which would test their ability to respond to manufactured crises.
The first suggestion to put a lid on debates came from Jesse L. Jackson at a debate on educational issues Sept. 11 in Chapel Hill, N.C., according to several candidates.
Jackson, who is to formally announce his campaign Saturday, found a surprisingly sympathetic response, as candidates tried to grapple with how to answer invitations for four different joint debates from Sept. 21-27.
"Last week was interesting, but I can't do four debates a week and conduct a campaign," Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D-Mass.) said after participating in three debates and a joint appearance the week of Sept. 21-27.
"It's a killer on the schedule," Gephardt said. "It takes about a day to prepare for a major debate. Then you have to get there and back."
Even the underdogs are rethinking the debate issue. "Our position is the more the better. We can do things in debates that we couldn't do otherwise given our budget," said Mike McCurry, press secretary to former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt.
"But you begin to wonder about the merit of showing up if they take you too far off the beaten path, and that means Des Moines and Nashua," he added.
This week, three debates are scheduled: a national defense debate tonight in Miami sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council; a Democratic National Committee "presidential forum" Wednesday in Washington and a "children's forum" Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
About two weeks ago, the Phil Donahue show contacted campaigns about holding a fourth, free-forum, debate Wednesday, campaign spokesmen said.
Donahue canceled the show after Dukakis, Gephardt and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) rejected invitations, and television stations in several major markets refused to air the show unless all six candidates appeared.
Only Jackson agreed to participate. Babbitt expressed "interest" in the show but said he had scheduling difficulties. Sen. Paul Simon was undecided.
"Some of the candidates appeared to be afraid of each other," Donahue said in a statement released today. The statement made the Democrats look timid, and most of them said they thought it was unfair. The format and timing of the proposed debate were the immediate stumbling blocks.
"It's an intriguing idea, but it also invites a free-for-all," Gephardt's press secretary, Don Foley, said. "We rely on a strong moderator to lend structure and equanimity. It would be like having six or seven master chefs in a kitchen trying to make a souffle."
All of the candidates had longstanding commitments to appear at the DNC forum.
"We usually schedule two months in advance for this sort of thing. All the candidates would have had to go straight from the Donahue show to the DNC at the Kennedy Center," Simon's press secretary, Dave Carle, said.
The campaigns apparently are looking for help from the national party to avoid such conflict. Several of them would also like the DNC to become a neutral debate clearinghouse.
Kirk has promoted debates as an alternative to straw polls that focused media attention on organization and money during the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. The debates have shifted attention to issues and style but have been unexciting.