The Commission on Presidential Debates is scheduled to announce its decision today on whether to let Reform Party nominee Ross Perot join in this fall's televised debates, but there is little chance that this will settle the issue.
Advisers for President Clinton and Republican nominee Robert J. Dole both said yesterday they will continue to press the issue in debate negotiations if the commission goes against their wishes. Advisers for Clinton want Perot in; advisers for Dole want him out.
"Irrespective of what is suggested by the commission, we're looking forward to debating President Clinton one-on-one," said John Buckley, communications director for the Dole campaign.
A senior Clinton adviser likewise said the president's negotiators aren't inclined to drop the issue if the commission decides Perot can't meet its official standard that all debate participants "have a realistic (i.e. more than theoretical) chance of being elected the next president . . . and who properly are considered to be among the principal rivals for the presidency."
Clinton campaign officials say privately they believe Perot would likely drain more support from Dole than he would from their candidate. They also believe that Perot would join Clinton in criticizing Dole's tax-cut plan as irresponsible. Dole advisers believe that Perot's presence would diminish the Republican's chances of reviving his campaign by drawing a clear contrast with Clinton.
Perot's status wasn't the only flash point as debate negotiating teams for Clinton and Dole prepare for a scheduled meeting today. Clinton's team, headed by Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, has four additional goals for the debates, according to a Clinton adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Clinton wants the first debate to take place no earlier than Oct. 3 and the last one to occur no later than Oct. 16, he wants all the debates to last at least 90 minutes, and he wants one to be in the "town meeting" format that made its debut in 1992, the adviser said.
By contrast, Dole's team, headed by former South Carolina governor Carroll A. Campbell, is pressing for shorter debates, no more than an hour, and wants the first debate to take place Sept. 26.
The commission originally scheduled the first debate for Sept. 25 in St. Louis, but the Clinton team said that was not acceptable because he is addressing the United Nations the day before and cannot prepare for both events at once. Campbell, in a letter Saturday to Kantor, said Dole would accommodate Clinton's schedule by keeping the first debate in St. Louis but moving it back a day.
Any delay beyond that suggests Clinton is trying to duck, said Buckley, who has already begun the traditional election-year game of playing down expectations for his candidate and pumping up those of his rival.
"We can't understand why someone who, after all, is the greatest debater since the days of the Roman Senate would not want to debate Senator Dole," he said.