The League of Women Voters withdrew today as sponsor of the presidential debate in Los Angeles later this month, charging both the Bush and Dukakis campaigns were "hoodwinking" the American people.
The league's surprise announcement immediately threw into doubt the second nationally televised confrontation between the presidential candidates, which had been scheduled for Oct. 13 or Oct. 14 in Los Angeles.
League President Nancy M. Neuman said the group was presented with a debate agreement between the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns and was told that the league had to accept it.
"The campaigns' agreement was a closed-door masterpiece," she said. "The agreement was a done deal, they told us.
"It turned out that the league had two choices," she said. "We could sign their closed-door agreement and hope the event would rise above their manipulations or we could refuse to lend our trusted name to this charade."
Neuman said: "The League of Women Voters is announcing today that we have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American people. . . . Under these circumstances, the league is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October in Los Angeles."
In letters to Bush campaign Chairman James Baker III and Dukakis campaign Chairman Paul Brountas, she said the league would reconsider its stance if the campaigns withdrew their "non-negotiable demands."
The league released a copy of the candidates' agreement.
"It spelled out everything," Neuman said. "Between themselves, the campaigns had determined what the TV cameras could take pictures of. They had determined how they would select who would pose questions to their candidates.
"They had determined that the press would be relegated to the last two rows of the hall. They had determined that they would pack the hall with their supporters. They had determined the format."
Democratic National Chairman Paul Kirk, campaigning with Dukakis in Connecticut, said a joint party debate commission could assume sponsorship and hold the second debate either as scheduled or after a brief delay.
The campaigns' agreement calls for each side's "best efforts to obtain a mutually agreeable sponsor" if one of the original sponsors drops out.
There was no certainty Bush would agree to a new sponsor.