The Presidential Debates: Don't Underestimate George W.

The last time Presidential debates transformed a close contest was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's boffo performances led to a landslide victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter. Two decades later, with the White House race again deadlocked in September, both Al Gore and George W. Bush are hoping to win this one like the Gipper.

As they approach the first of three debates, on Oct. 3 in Boston, Bush has more to lose. Beset by campaign gaffes and Dan Quayle-like ridicule from TV comics, Dubya must convince independents, lunch-pail Democrats, and other swing voters that he has the intellect to run the country--and that his "real plans for real people" mantra is not an empty slogan. Says Rice University political scientist Earl Black: "He has to show that he can take on Gore and act like a President."

Vice-President Gore has plenty at stake, too. Despite his well-received acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, he must demonstrate anew that he can separate himself from Administration sleaze, pay for his pile of new promises, and show that his populist riff is more than an election-year reinvention to attract swing voters.

Neither candidate has much margin for error. With the debate series concluding in St. Louis just three weeks before the election, whoever comes out of the rhetorical rumbles with the most momentum will be hard to beat.

LOWBALL GAME. Bush plans to put Gore on the defensive by trying to portray his policy proposals on issues from Social Security to schools as throwbacks to liberal big government. The goal: Convince voters that he is the real reformer. By being alternately forceful and charming, Bush hopes to project an aura of strength and thoughtful leadership.

Gore's to-do list is longer. He'll portray himself as a safer choice for voters concerned about continued prosperity. He will also lash out at industries that he says harm average people--HMOs, drugmakers, tobacco, and Big Oil. Gore will also attack Bush's Texas record, particularly on children's health and pollution. Whenever possible, the Veep will try to engage Bush in a detailed discussion of their dueling policy prescriptions--an attempt to reinforce perceptions that he is smarter. But Gore must carefully modulate his presentation: If he appears condescending or nasty, it could backfire.

Conventional wisdom holds that Bush stands little chance against a masterful debater who has vanquished such foes as Ross Perot and Jack Kemp. But that could work against Gore, too. "Expectations are now so low [for Bush] that the pundits will declare him the winner if he can talk and keep his pants on at the same time," says Dean Rindy, a Democratic media consultant in Austin. That may be why Bush is playing lowball. "I understand that [Gore] is a great debater," Bush told CNN on Sept. 16.

Underestimating Bush can be dangerous, though. Despite his penchant for mangling the King's English, he can be a surprisingly adept debater. Bush held his own in gubernatorial gabfests in '94 and '98--and, after a slow start, he improved steadily during contentious GOP primary debates.

Still, Democrats don't seemed worried about a repeat of 1980, when pundits predicted a mismatch between blooper-prone Reagan and supersmart Carter. Former Texas Democratic Party Chairman Bob Slagle jokes that "there was a real dispute over the debates. Gore wanted them to be 90 minutes. Bush only wanted them to be an hour and a half." Funny, huh? Gore will soon learn if--like Carter--the joke's on him.

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