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THE REAL WINNER IN THE DEBATES

The widespread impression that negotiators for Vice President Al Gore outmaneuvered representatives of Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the "debate over debates" is probably correct. But it misses an important point: The real winner was the Commission on Presidential Debates.

This private body, which replaced the League of Women Voters as the organizer of the general election debates in 1988, was able to obtain the acquiescence of both major-party nominees to the full schedule it had set. For the first time, the presidential and vice presidential candidates will show up in exactly the places and dates the commission proposed - and follow very much the formats the commission wanted.

Until this year, whichever candidate had the lead in the polls or the advantage of incumbency, or just the most hard-nosed negotiators, strong-armed the commission and the opposing candidate into bending the schedule to his own advantage. In 1996, for example, President Clinton's team simply announced he would not be available for the first debate because he had to work on a speech. In 1992, President Bush's team had used his incumbency to pull the same kind of stunt on Clinton.

In his book, "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV," Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder argues that the sponsor of the debates almost inevitably is elbowed to the sidelines by the candidates' teams.

"Because the issues in question - structure, schedule, timing, staging and so on - are political as well as programmatic, the campaigns take control of this agenda with a vengeance," Schroeder writes. "As early as 1960, it became apparent that the sponsoring organizations - the stagers of the event and payers of the bills - would be relegated to a secondary role in the planning."

That history doubtless encouraged the Bush campaign to think it could muscle the commission out of the way by declaring that the governor would accept only one of its three proposed events. Instead, Bush challenged Gore to meet him in a prime-time hour of NBC's "Meet the Press" and another joint appearance on CNN's Larry King show.

But when Gore demurred, a funny thing happened. Editorial pages around the country, cartoonists and commentators said it was Bush who was trying to duck the challenge. A real debate, they said, meant 90 minutes on all broadcast channels under the sponsorship of the Commission on Presidential Debates. And so the commission emerges with enhanced status as the owner of the franchise for what have become the make-or-break events in the contest for the leadership of the world's only superpower.

This is, in important ways, a boon to the public, for the commission has exercised its power responsibly. It has taken the debates out of the TV studios, where too much of our politics is centered, and placed them on college campuses in different parts of the country, bringing in a healthy element of public involvement, especially by young people.

The commission has found a superb and notably evenhanded debate moderator in PBS' Jim Lehrer. It has discarded the press panels, which were a crutch to the candidates and, too often, an embarrassment to our business. In addition, it has weathered every legal challenge thrown at its operations and financing. It has evolved a defensible and objective standard for deciding whether any minor-party candidates should be invited to participate. The 15 percent poll showing it is using this year is not popular with supporters of Ralph Nader or Patrick J. Buchanan. Some early polls found public support for a four-way debate.

But the commission has stood its ground, and the squawks seem to be fading. Indeed, the legitimacy of the commission now looks so secure it is time to think about its future. By its charter, the co-chairmen of the commission are drawn from the two major parties. Paul G. Kirk, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Frank Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, have been the only co-chairmen the commission has known.

They have formed a strong partnership, and each of them has withstood intense pressure from his fellow-partisans to help out their own nominees. But Kirk and Fahrenkopf will not be there forever. The next service they can render is to provide for an orderly succession.

Washington Post Writers Group

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