Bush: 'Let the Debates Begin'

July 7, 2008 - 8:26 PM

(CNSNews.com) -- The usual pre-presidential debate maneuvering got underway over the Labor Day weekend, with Gov. George W. Bush and his aides urging Vice President Al Gore to accept a challenge to three prime-time debates - two less formal ones on CNN and NBC and a final, more formally-structured one in St. Louis.

"Al Gore said he would debate the governor any time, any place," said Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes. "We expect the vice president to keep his word."

Bush called a press conference at the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, Sunday night, proposing a debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" as soon as September 12, another on CNN's "Larry King Live" on October 3, and a third on October 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.

"'I have a simple message: Let the debates begin," he said.

Gore quickly rejected the challenge, saying he would not accept debates unless Bush agreed to three formal, 90-minute encounters proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Of the three suggested by Bush, only the St. Louis one fell into that category.

The non-partisan commission itself also stood by its recommendations, saying it believed holding three formal and nationally-televised debates was "in the best interest of the American public."

The commission, which has overseen presidential debates since 1988, wants debates on October 3 in Boston, October 11 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and on October 17 in St. Louis.

"I am happy to consider other debates and accept the others mentioned, as soon as Bush accepts the commission's proposal," Gore said, calling Bush's plan a disappointment.

"No candidate should arrogantly insist on debating only where and when it best suits him," added Gore campaign manager Bill Daley in a statement.

Reports point out, however, that President Clinton only agreed to two of three commission-scheduled debates against Republican challenger Bob Dole in 1996. Dole himself wanted four.

In response to Daley's charge that Bush wanted to cut millions of viewers out of the debate audience, the governor's aides said CNN and NBC had offered to make their programs available to other networks.

With the candidates running neck-and-neck in most polls, the debates this campaign could be even more important than usual. Gore is considered the more accomplished debater.