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Bush, Kerry campaigns reach tentative accord for 3 debates

GOP backs off urging 2 face-to-face sessions

WASHINGTON -- The campaigns of President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry have tentatively settled on a package of three face-to-face debates, which 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 weeklong negotiations by urging 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 debates will be spread over two weeks just before the hectic homestretch of a bitter contest, which 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, Sept. 30 in Florida. They will take questions from undecided voters at the town-meeting-style debate on Oct. 8 in Missouri, and they will conclude with a session Oct. 13 in Arizona, which will revolve around domestic issues.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards will debate Oct. 5 in Ohio. Each of the four debates are to 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 refused to comment on the state of negotiations. Nicolle Devenish, Bush-Cheney communications director, said: "The campaign maintains its position that it will not negotiate the terms of the debates in the press."

Bush's chief negotiator, former secretary of state James Baker, 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 challenger, according to a source.

Under the commission's proposal, the participants for the town meeting will be undecided voters from the St. Louis metropolitan area who are chosen by the Gallup Organization.

"The Bush campaign didn't want to do the town hall, because they really didn't trust the process identifying uncommitted voters," said a Republican source familiar with the talks. "But things are going so well for them and so poorly for Kerry that they didn't want to give Kerry an opportunity to change the subject and say that Bush is afraid of debates. Bush not doing debates or dragging out the debate on debates could have been played by the Kerry campaign as arrogance."

After reaching agreement on the broad outlines of the schedule, Baker and Kerry's lead negotiator, Vernon Jordan, were negotiating details of the town meeting over the weekend. Officials indirectly involved said they believed these were the only elements standing in the way of a final agreement.

The nonpartisan commission has sponsored debates in each election since 1988, but candidates are not obligated to accept the commission's proposal. As negotiations continued, the commission issued an unusual letter Wednesday, saying the campaigns must settle on a schedule by today for production and logistical deadlines to be met.

Both campaigns agreed to the dates, locations, and moderators proposed by the commission.

The Sept. 30 debate will be held at the University of Miami in Coral Gables and will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, anchor and executive editor of "The NewsHour" on PBS. The Oct. 8 town hall-style debate will be moderated by Charles Gibson, coanchor of ABC's "Good Morning, America." The last debate, Oct. 13, will be held at Arizona State University in Tempe. The questioner will be Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and moderator of "Face the Nation."

The Oct. 5 vice presidential debate will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and moderated by Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent of "The NewsHour" and moderator of PBS's "Washington Week."

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