Bush, Kerry Tentatively Settle on 3 Debates

Bush, Kerry Tentatively Settle on 3 Debates (Mike Allen and Dan Balz, WaPo)

The campaigns of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have tentatively settled on a package of three face-to-face debates that both sides view as a potentially decisive chance to sway huge audiences ahead of the Nov. 2 election, Democrats and Republicans said yesterday. Bush’s campaign, which opened the negotiations by urging just two sessions involving Bush and Kerry, yielded to the full slate of debates that had been proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, according to people in both parties who were briefed on the negotiations. No agreement will be final until the two sides agree on details for the format of a town-meeting-style debate that Bush at first resisted but now is willing to endorse, the party representatives said.

The debates will be spread over two weeks just before the hectic homestretch of a bitter contest that had been tied for months until Bush recently opened a small lead in a number of national polls. The nominees will focus on foreign policy during the opening session, on Sept. 30 in Florida; they will take questions from undecided voters at the town-meeting-style debate Oct. 8 in Missouri; and they will conclude with a session on Oct. 13 in Arizona that will revolve around domestic issues. Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards will debate Oct. 5 in Ohio. Each of the four debates will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time and will run 90 minutes.

The officials, who declined to be identified because they were not supposed to be discussing the matter with reporters, would not say when an agreement will be announced. Both campaigns declined to comment on the state of negotiations. Bush-Cheney communications director Nicolle Devenish said: “The campaign maintains its position that it will not negotiate the terms of the debates in the press.”
Kerry’s campaign sees the debates as especially important, coming after a period in which he has been put on the defensive by the Bush campaign and its conservative allies. Polls paint a confusing picture of the state of the race, with some showing a virtual dead heat and others giving Bush a clear advantage. In many of the key battleground states, Bush appears in stronger shape than his challenger. Bush’s chief negotiator, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, agreed to three debates in part because of Missouri’s importance as a swing state and because the president did not want to be portrayed as ducking his opponent, according to a source.

This strikes me as a very odd move on the part of the Bush campaign. First, he has nothing to gain from agreeing to three debates. He’s the frontrunner, so the best he could hope for would be the status quo. Further, he’s the incumbent and thus much better known by the electorate. As such, the public’s perception of him is largely settled whereas Kerry’s stature only improves by putting himself into a forum where he is put on equal footing with the president. Second, any advantage Kerry would gain by being able to charge Bush with “ducking” the debates (by doing two rather than three) seems easily outweighed by Bush’s flip-flopping on the issue. By backing down in this with no obvious concession, he simply looks weak.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark J says:

    I can’t argue any of those points, but despite Bush’s recent surge, it’s still a close race. Bush does very well in terms of “likeability” in interviews whereas Kerry, while he comes off as intelligent, seems unprincipled and untrustworthy.

    It’s going to be interesting, for sure.

  2. McGehee says:

    Kerry’s stature only improves by putting himself into a forum where he is put on equal footing with the president.

    Don’t overlook the fact that the more America sees Kerry, the faster his support numbers collapse.