No one was blinking in the great-debate debate Friday. Democrat Bill Clinton assailed President Bush for passing up a face-off next week in Michigan, while the White House said the stumbling block to debates was Clinton's refusal to negotiate.
"I've listened to all their macho talk, but when it comes time to go man to man, plan to plan, where is he?" Clinton demanded at a rally at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.The Arkansas governor accused Bush of "hiding from an honest discussion . . . of a record he'd like to hide from." He said Bush was "good at one thing. He's a great vetoer. He vetoed the first presidential debate."
Clinton's double-barrelled assault included a radio ad that started running Friday across Michigan, an important battleground state that would have hosted a Sept. 22 debate proposed by a bipartisan commission.
"The American people have a lot of questions. Bill Clinton is ready to answer them. So why won't George Bush debate? He says he doesn't like the rules," the ad said.
Bush strategist Charles Black said the president wasn't backing out of anything. "There's nothing to cancel when there never was one," Black said of the East Lansing event. "That was simply a proposal."
Despite the apparent impasse, top advisers to Republican Bush and Democrat Clinton insisted Friday that the two candidates were virtually certain to debate.
Asked the likelihood on NBC's "Today" program, Black and Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos gave the same answer: 100 percent.
"We're going to be in East Lansing on the 22nd, ready to debate. If the president's ready, he can show up," said Stephanopoulos. "We'll see you sooner or later," Black responded.
Supporters of Ross Perot, meanwhile, still hoping to make it a three-man race, submitted petitions to put his name on the ballot in Arizona. That made 50 states for the non-candidate, who draws enough support in polls to make him a possible spoiler in states where the Bush-Clinton race is close this November.
The build-up for the Michigan debate began during the primary season, when the commission recommended East Lansing as the first of three debate sites. Clinton agreed to the plan in June when it was clear he'd be the Democratic nominee.
But the Bush team, unhappy with the single-moderator format, later proposed direct negotiations with the Clinton campaign.
If he didn't hear from Clinton officials by Friday, said Bush campaign chairman Robert Teeter, "we will assume you do not wish to debate."
Clinton plans a rally Tuesday in East Lansing followed by a televised town meeting that evening in Detroit to substitute for the debate Bush has declined to attend. The Democrats in the meantime are trying with the new ad to stimulate a perception that Bush is ducking debates.
The ad said Bush won't come to Michigan because "he wants a panel of reporters to ask questions, instead of having an open exchange between the candidates."
The narrator recounts a litany of economic woes and concludes, "If you believe the debate about America's future should begin next Tuesday in Michigan, call the Bush-Quayle headquarters . . . and tell George Bush, it's time to debate." It gives a phone number for the call.
Aides said the campaign may run the radio spot in other states as well.
This year is unusual in that both candidates appear to need debates. Clinton needs them for the usual reason - to bridge a possible stature gap between a challenger and a sitting president. But Bush needs them, too, because he is trailing Clinton by about 10 points in national polls.
The latest, a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll of 1,506 registered voters published Friday, found Clinton leading Bush 51-41 percent.
Clinton made a particularly strong showing among women - 54 percent favored the Democrat compared to 36 percent for Bush. The poll, with an error margin of 2.5 points, showed men split evenly between the two candidates.