BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : OCTOBER 16, 2000 ISSUE
NEWS: ANALYSIS & COMMENTARY

Commentary: It Will Take Three Debates to Pick the Winner


As the first Presidential debate--aka the Boston Brawl--recedes into memory and the candidates gird for round two on Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., the punditocracy is having a tough time declaring a victor among all the jabs, sighs, and verbal head-butts. Professional debate coaches and political veterans seem to think that Vice-President Al Gore narrowly won the first encounter on points. How? By appearing in command of the facts and by cheerfully playing the role of aggressor. So is Republican George W. Bush, armed only with his tinny arsenal of one-liners and seemingly afraid to pronounce the names of world leaders, destined to fall short again in North Carolina and in the climactic Oct. 17 debate in St. Louis? Maybe not.

First off, keep in mind that Presidential debates are not the Olympic diving competition, and the neatness of your splash pattern doesn't matter. They are fairly crude, excruciatingly repetitive exercises in communicating to targeted audiences--in this case, the 25% of voters who haven't decided between Gore and Bush. If a candidate gets his themes across to them--as in Gore's ''I'm for the people vs. the powerful'' or Bush's ''I'm for the taxpayers vs. the bureaucrats''--he has scored.

True, the Vice-President is a smooth debater. But Bush, in his awkward, West Texas way, is still hitting home with his call for a shake-up of Washington's political culture. Bush's high command is convinced that this idea, plus Bush's compassionate conservative appeals, are keeping their man in the game despite a solid economy.

METHODICAL APPROACH. Another thing the chattering classes forget is that Bush's debate strategy is not built around devastating ''there he goes again'' barbs or surprise attacks. He has a safe and methodical approach: Avoid mistakes by using generalities, keep robotically repeating attacks on the status quo, and project an image of competence.

Bush's debate performances don't have to inspire for his plan to succeed. Many undecideds detest Gore, according to pollsters. The more Bush appears as a viable alternative--i.e., someone who won't be an embarrassment in the Oval Office--the more ground he gains. Says former Reagan image-meister Michael K. Deaver: ''Reagan never made his breakthrough until the third debate, when voters saw how different he was from his 'Mad Bomber' image. Bush may do the same.''

Obviously, Deaver is a partisan. And Gore has a much stronger economy and Administration record to run on than did Jimmy Carter. But Deaver is on to something elemental about the debates: It's not a politician's list of policy prescriptions that matters to swing voters. It's whether he sounds sincere and his core philosophy rings true. By that standard, Gore may be cleaving the debate waters in a graceful arc. But the fidgety, occasionally tongue-tied Bush may be making the bigger splash.

By Lee Walczak
Walczak covers the campaign from Washington, D.C.

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