PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — George W. Bush is dispatching aides to meet with major television network executives and a special commission to decide on times, places and formats for presidential debates that Al Gore accuses him of trying to duck.
The Texas governor denied he was trying to avoid televised face-offs with the vice president, saying he would welcome prime-time debates. To that end, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said top advisers Joe Allbaugh, Andrew Card and Don Evans would be in Washington on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to discuss debate scenarios with officials at CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and the Commission on Presidential Debates.
"When they discuss with these groups the formats, one of the conditions they'll discuss is how to share the debates as widely as possible for all the networks to use," Fleischer said Tuesday.
The top Bush aides plan to meet this week and next with potential debate sponsors. After those sessions, Bush will present his debate schedule, a counteroffer to Gore's. If tradition holds, it may take several weeks of negotiations to reach an agreement over debate formats.
"George Bush is trying to do everything he can to avoid prime-time presidential debates that will be seen on all three networks," Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani said.
"Who said we don't want prime-time exposure?" Bush told reporters. "I welcome prime-time debates."
He made clear that he prefers relatively informal debates, such as the session during the Republican primaries in which the participants were seated around a table with CNN talk show host Larry King. Gore advisers believe a confrontational moderator better suits Gore's style.
The vice president's campaign, which has accepted every invitation it has received, on Tuesday embraced a proposal for three nationally televised face-offs with his Republican rival.
Bush has accepted no invitations but said he would welcome prime-time sessions — but not necessarily the ones endorsed by Gore.
"The vice president said, 'I'll debate him anytime, anywhere, anyplace.' We take him at his word," Bush said. "We will pick and choose the venues that enable us both to be able to discuss what we want to do should either of us become the president."
Such debate dances are something of a tradition in presidential races, as the candidates bicker and posture for advantage on everything from logistics to lighting.
Both campaigns see advantage in their negotiating strategies. By accepting every invitation, Gore's camp can try to paint Bush as a candidate afraid to face his rival before a major TV audience. The Bush campaign, meanwhile, believes Gore likely would be flexible on details of the debates because he would have a hard time backing out of a debate taking shape in a way he didn't like.
The debate question overshadowed Bush's efforts to highlight his plan for education reform, the second straight day he was forced from his political agenda.
He was veering back to the topic Wednesday at a high school in Hampton, N.H., by pushing his plans to make higher education more affordable. Among his proposals were increasing the maximum Pell grant from $3,300 to $5,100, grant a tax exemption for those who participate in tuition savings plans and establish a $1.5 billion grant to help states offset the costs of aid for advanced-placement high school students.
Bush also proposed expanding education savings accounts to allow families or individuals to contribute up to $5,000 annually per child and withdraw funds tax free.
Bush indicated Tuesday he expects more interest in other topics, telling reporters sarcastically, "I appreciate your interest" in his education pitch.
Gore campaign manager Bill Daley on Tuesday issued a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates formally endorsing the panel's proposal for presidential forums on Oct. 3, 11 and 17. The 90-minute debates would be available for broadcast by all TV networks.
The commission has sponsored presidential debates since 1988, including those that included Bush's father, former President Bush.
The younger Bush this year has privately grumbled to associates that the commission debates were "gimmicky," and prone to highlighting "one-liners" over substance. Bush is said to be particularly wary of the town hall format.