President Bush hosts an "Ask President Bush" campaign event in Derry, N.H., Sept. 20, 2004.
Both presidential campaigns have now agreed to three debates, but it's no surprise that this remained in question just 10 days before the first event was to take place.
The stakes are high: the debates may well decide whether President Bush cruises to re-election or joins his father on the list of one-term presidents. President Bush and his campaign team know this.
They remember that in 2000, the momentum in the presidential election belonged to Vice President Al Gore until the debates scrambled the race. They also remember that Bush's father, the first President Bush, lost his best chance to save his job in 1992 when he was caught in the crossfire between Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
In both the 1992 and 2000 debates, the debate the Bush team liked least was the "town hall" format, in which audience members posed their own unscripted questions to the candidates. It was in this debate in 1992 that the first President Bush was seen checking his watch more than once.
So this year the Bush team readily accepted the two more conventional face-offs between the president and Democratic Sen. John Kerry, but balked at another trip to the town hall. They let it be known they thought there would be hostile questioners, perhaps planted by the Kerry campaign, trying to make the president look bad.
This is a hazard the Bush campaign takes very seriously. And before it finally accepted the full slate of debates, including the Oct. 8 town hall at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the Bush team wanted to be assured that every effort would be made to prevent such a thing.
It is out of character for the Bush campaign to leave anything to chance. Throughout this electoral season, the president has campaigned actively and vigorously, but always within a protective framework. The overall impression is of a campaign built to shelter the president, keeping him away from anything unpredictable.
The Kerry campaign has been increasingly protective of its candidate as well in recent weeks. The Democrat spends far less time now than he once did taking questions from the press. But Kerry is not the sitting president of the United States. So Mr. Bush is avoiding inquiries not just about the campaign, but about administration policy and activities as well — even as the situation in Iraq deteriorates and the congressional spending process comes to a halt in a critical month.
Even when the president meets the people, grinning and shaking hands, the occasions are carefully planned, staged and cast by the Bush campaign. Only ticket holders approved by the Republican Party are allowed to participate. When the president holds "Ask President Bush" sessions, as he did again this week in Derry, N.H., the questions are easy ones, including: "What do you like best about being president?" or "How has your faith helped you in your job?"
And while the president at least does meet the public, he does not meet the press. He has not held a press conference since April. That formal session in the East Room of the White House made an even dozen for this presidency to date, a number that doesn't even show up on the chart when compared to other presidents. President John F. Kennedy held news conferences every other week.
In fact, as of this writing the president has gone nearly a month without responding even to a shouted question from the press pool that shadows his every public move. (Mind you, the questions have been shouted, it's just that the president has not acknowledged them.)
The last time he took questions even in an informal setting from the White House press corps was Aug. 23 at his ranch, where spoke briefly with a handful of reporters just a few days before the Republican convention.
Should the president be more accessible? Is it wrong for his campaign to shield him? Political professionals will point out that Bush's strategy overall could scarcely be working better. Not only has he moved into a statistically significant lead in most nationwide polls, they also note that he seems to be building solid leads in states that had once looked competitive for Kerry. These include Arizona, Virginia, Missouri and perhaps even Ohio — a state hit hard by job losses and one the Democrats had counted on turning around this year.
In fact, the Bush team feels sanguine enough now to spend most of its time playing on blue state territory — visiting states Gore carried in 2000. If the president can pick off even two or three of these states, his re-election would appear certain. So it's not hard to see why the White House is feeling more secure, and comfortable enough to take on three debates — including a town hall format.
NPR's Don Gonyea is White House correspondent.