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If George Bush wants to get rid of the "wimp" image that keeps plaguing him, he had better lose no time in answering a key question clearly and boldly.

The question: Will he or won't he participate in the nationally televised debates being arranged between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees?As it is now, Bush gives the impression that he would like to avoid the debates. But that would be a serious mistake.

Last year, the national chairmen of both parties agreed to set up a bipartisan Commission on President Debates, which would make the arrangements for the debates. Now some members of the commission are looking for a commitment from Bush on his participation in the debates this year.

Though Vice President Bush made it clear previously that he would not make a definite promise to debate until after the GOP national convention, his continued adherence to that stance is hard to justify now that he has the nomination virtually locked up.

Could Bush have concluded he's so far ahead of the Democratic opposition that he doesn't have to debate? If so, he should think again. Eight years ago, Ronald Reagan was also doing so well that he declined to debate Jimmy Carter. But Reagan's refusal to debate bothered voters so much that his lead started shrinking. In response, Reagan reversed himself, debated Carter, and went on to win by a landslide.

The debates have become an important part of the presidential election process. The public won't look kindly on anyone who snubs the debates or who looks wishy-washy about whether or not he will participate in them.