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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Debate Sponsors Say ‘Take It or Leave It’ : Broadcasters’ group tires of haggling and outlines a three-part format. Brown’s camp accepts. Wilson’s says the ‘concept’ is not specific enough.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After six weeks of haggling with the two gubernatorial campaigns, the California Broadcasters Assn. has announced a format for an Oct. 16 debate between Gov. Pete Wilson and state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and told the candidates to take it or leave it.

Brown’s debate negotiators immediately accepted the format, which splits the one-hour forum into three parts: a traditional question, answer and rebuttal segment with political reporters; an interactive segment with television viewers, and a segment during which Brown and Wilson will question each other.

But on Tuesday, the Wilson campaign balked, calling the plan “a concept, not a format.” Until the association spells out exactly how the debate will work--how long each segment will last and how many questions will be asked, for example--senior counsel Larry Thomas said Wilson will not make a decision.

“The devil is always in the details,” Thomas said, repeating his contention that Wilson cannot consider the four other debates Brown has proposed until this first one is settled. “To get to five, you have to get past one.”

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Political observers say Wilson is behaving as the classic incumbent, dragging his feet to minimize one-on-one contact with his opponent. “They’re stalling,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School. “If everybody really wanted to debate, they’d say, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s not that difficult. It’s not rocket science.”

Kim Wardlaw, a lawyer who is leading Brown’s five-member debate negotiation team, agreed. “Their strategy is to delay, defer, deny, dodge,” she said. “The fraud is they’ve refused to discuss any additional debates until they sign up this Oct. 16 debate--and they refuse to sign up the Oct. 16 debate. . . . He doesn’t want to debate Kathleen Brown.”

Both campaigns had accepted the broadcasters’ invitation on the condition a format could be agreed upon. Brown then accepted four other debate invitations around the state, and her campaign has repeatedly called for Wilson to accept those as well. Wilson officials say he is unavailable to debate during September because he will be busy signing and vetoing more than 1,500 pieces of legislation. But they claim Wilson is eager to debate.

“It’s just not credible to suggest that we don’t want one,” said Thomas, noting that his team proposed that a panel of political reporters be the sole questioners for the association’s debate. “If (Brown’s camp) just accepted our format we put on the table initially . . . then we’d have an agreement today.”

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Thomas said that once the association delivers a more specific debate outline, probably some time next week, Wilson’s team will evaluate it and offer comments. “We will either communicate back to them in writing or sit down for a meeting.”

But Vic Biondi, executive director of the group, indicated that although he is eager to accommodate both campaigns, there is no longer time for bickering.

“This is it. . . . We’re going to do what we’re going to do,” he said. “This is not negotiations. We just don’t have time for that. We’ve got to move on.”


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