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CNN Today

Bush and Gore Continue to Debate About Debates

Aired September 4, 2000 - 2:21 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: As we reported a few minutes ago, the final stretch of election 2000 begins with presidential candidates debating about when and where to debate. Democrats reject the Republican presidential candidate George Bush's proposal, which includes a presidential debate next week on NBC's "Meet the Press," another on CNN's "LARRY KING LIVE," and a final debate at Washington University in St. Louis. Only the St. Louis event is on the list proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

We're joined now by representatives of the Bush and Gore campaigns. Bush adviser Ari Fleischer joins us from Austin, Texas. Good afternoon. And the deputy director of communications for the Gore campaign, Doug Hattaway, joining us from Nashville.

Let me get this kick started here with a couple of quotes from both campaigns. From the Gore campaign -- quote -- "No candidate should arrogantly insist on debating only where and when it best suits him." From the Bush campaign: "Al Gore has said he will debate any time, any place. We have said the time and place, we expect him to be there."

Now, we all know, both of these candidates will debate. They always do. Why all this pre-presidential debate jockeying every time the election comes around? Mr. Fleischer, you want to start?

ARI FLEISCHER, SENIOR BUSH ADVISER: Well, we think it's very important, Lou, that when a candidate gives their word that they honor it. Vice President Gore chose those debates and that's why we accepted the same ones. He told Larry King that he accepted an offer to debate on "LARRY KING," no preconditions. And he told Tim Russert the same thing. So we have merely accepted that which Al Gore has accepted. There should be no reason at all for any of this debate about the debates. If Al Gore meant what he said, we will see him next Tuesday night at a debate he's already accepted.

WATERS: Mr. Hattaway?

DOUG HATTAWAY, DEP. COMMUNICATIONS DIR., GORE CAMPAIGN: I think it's clear what Governor Bush is up to. He's -- despite saying to the viewers of this network that he wanted more people to view these debates than have in the past, he turned right around and offered a proposal that would virtually ensure that fewer people would see the debates. The Presidential Commission has offered three 90 minute primetime debates available to all the networks, that by definition is going to provide the largest viewing audience.

And Governor Bush's proposal, despite what he said, is going to cut out tens of millions of people who could otherwise view the debates. It's only right that the American people have an opportunity to see the candidates and hear what they have to say about the issues, and the commission debate is the best way to do that.

WATERS: Well, is that the bottom line here, who -- the greatest number of people? Because I know that CNN has already said that they will, as a public service, allow all the networks -- anybody who wants it to pick up any debate here on CNN. So is it about -- is it really about the number of people watching the debate?

HATTAWAY: Well, we all love CNN. But I -- it's very questionable whether the other networks are going to give you an hour on their airtime at primetime. I think the commission debates, which have traditionally offered this access to all the networks, and all the networks have done it, is the -- guarantees us the largest audience as possible. If Governor Bush is going to keep his word he said on this network the other day and have more people watch the debates than ever before, he would accept the commission proposal.

WATERS: So is...

FLEISCHER: Lou, you'll notice that Doug didn't respond at all to what I said, because when the issue is whether Al Gore will keep his word, they really don't have very much to say. The vice president shouldn't have told Tim Russert he accepted the debate, or Larry King he accepted the debate, if he didn't mean it. And I think it does raise other questions, what Al Gore's -- what you hear from Al Gore is not what you are going to get.

And it's not only true, I am afraid, for the debates, but he says that he's going to get rid of the marriage penalty, but he doesn't get rid of it for anybody who owns a home. He says he wants to help with prescription drugs, get for everybody who spends less than $500 a year on prescription drugs, he'll actually make people pay more than they get. The problem is what you hear from Al Gore is not what you're going to get, and he shouldn't have made those promises to those hosts if he had no intention of honoring them.

HATTAWAY: Well, let's be clear, Ari, Al Gore will -- would love to do the debates on these other programs, we need to nail down the issue of the commission debates, and this is sort of ridiculous.

FLEISCHER: Did he say that at the time, Doug? Doug, he didn't say that, you're changing your tune.

HATTAWAY: Governor Bush has been ducking debates for months. He's been ducking debates for months.

FLEISCHER: You're -- all of a sudden, new conditions, new clauses, he never said that.

HATTAWAY: It's sort of ridiculous now.

FLEISCHER: He shouldn't have said it if he didn't mean it.

WATERS: Why not do the...

HATTAWAY: All right, why don't you let me finish.

It's sort of ridiculous now to pretend that you're on the high road around debates, when Governor Bush has been ducking them for months. We'll do the commission debates and happy to do all of the other debates, but for some reason Governor Bush doesn't want to do them.

WATERS: Why not have the Presidential Commission debates and what Governor Bush proposes? Why not just debate, debate, debate, debate?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's an interesting question, Lou. And in 1996, of course, the Presidential Commission wanted to do three presidential debates, but Al Gore only wanted to do two, and he and President Clinton turned down one of the commission debates. So the precedent was set by...

HATTAWAY: That's not true.

FLEISCHER: Was there a debate in St. Louis in 1996 on the presidential level, no? The commission proposed three. Clinton and Gore only showed up for two. So the precedent was set by your own campaign...

HATTAWAY: The president...

FLEISCHER: ... to say no to the commission, and now somehow you suggests it's arrogant -- your word -- for a campaign not to do exactly what the commission says. You have paved the road, you have set the precedent. Now, you also said you would accept debates on "Meet the Press and "LARRY KING." If Al Gore's word has value, he'll show up.

HATTAWAY: Look -- Ari, look, if the governor is going to say he wants more people to watch the debates than ever before...

FLEISCHER: You're not answering the question.

HATTAWAY: ... then turns around with a proposal that's going to minimize the audience, if credibility is your message, that -- you're going to have to do better than that.

FLEISCHER: Doug, all Al Gore has to do is show up and those three debates will be watched by tens of millions. It's in Al Gore's hands. All he has to do is show up. It's up to him. His word is on the line and he could control the audience.

HATTAWAY: The Presidential Commission...

FLEISCHER: All he has to do is be there and people will watch.

WATERS: Do we know when the first debate is going to be? FLEISCHER: If he shows up Tuesday, it's going to be Tuesday. And if he doesn't, then the next one is "LARRY KING."

WATERS: All right.

HATTAWAY: The Presidential Commission is offering to me. Is the governor meet with the commission to discuss this in a bipartisan way?

FLEISCHER: Of course we will.

HATTAWAY: Good.

FLEISCHER: We already have and we'll look forward to doing that.

WATERS: OK, we'll wait for the results. Thank you both, Doug Hattaway, Ari Fleischer.

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