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    Debate format poses big risks

    Meet the Press' moderator and a looser format may stir up the candidates' final debate tonight.

    By WES ALLISON and STEVE BOUSQUET
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 22, 2002


    When Gov. Jeb Bush and Bill McBride sit down tonight in Orlando for their third and final debate, each will be trying to accomplish a specific mission.

    Bush, who hopes to be the first Republican governor of Florida to win a second term, will try to show voters McBride lacks the range and grasp of issues to run the country's fourth largest state.

    Democrat McBride will try make the case, as often as he can, that public education under Bush has foundered because of misplaced priorities and high-stakes testing.

    It could be the most important hour of the campaign. Should be fun to watch, too.

    Unlike the past two debates, with rigid time limits and little room for verbal fencing, moderator Tim Russert's loose format and provocative style promise excitement, adventure and danger for all.

    "It's going to be two guys at a table," said Cory Tilley, a Bush adviser and Tallahassee public relations consultant.

    "No stiff podiums. Just Russert sitting there, very much like Meet the Press. There will be plenty of room for give and take. It's big time."

    For McBride, that means room to talk schools and pitch his folksy image and small-town upbringing, a sharp contrast to Bush's polish and pedigree.

    But it also means room to get his tongue tangled, or to appear ill-versed when discussion strays from education, the foundation of his campaign. That has happened before.

    For Bush, the debate offers room to show his mastery of a wide range of issues -- or get lost in the woods of minutiae, or appear smug. That has happened before, too.

    The debate begins at 7 p.m. and will be aired live by Florida's NBC affiliates, including WFLA-Ch. 8. MSNBC and C-SPAN plan to replay it.

    For one hour, the candidates will sit at a table in the Pegasus Ballroom of the student union at the University of Central Florida with Russert, the host of Meet the Press.

    Russert has moderated the final debates in Bush's past two races. He favors tough questions and has nixed the usual round of opening and closing statements in favor of getting straight to questions.

    The McBride campaign acquired tapes of past Russert-run debates "just to get a feel for what his style is," said McBride's wife, Alex Sink.

    She said she heard he's so forceful that "this isn't a debate; it's a conversation with Tim Russert."

    In 1994, with the race tight, Gov. Lawton Chiles used the Russert debate to reassert his dominance over his young challenger, Jeb Bush .

    "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day," Chiles warned cryptically.

    The line befuddled Bush and many viewers, but Chiles was called the he-coon until he died. Florida Democrats have been invoking it ever since.

    Now Bush is the incumbent trying to hold off an unexpectedly strong challenger. He is a polished speaker and experienced orator, and the expectations for Bush to do well are much higher than for McBride, who was criticized for his performance in the first televised debate last month in Jacksonville.

    In that respect, the governor has the most to lose. But polls show many voters still aren't familiar with McBride, so he has much to gain -- and lose -- as well. The latest, a Mason-Dixon poll released Monday night, showed Bush leading McBride 49 percent to 44, with 7 percent of voters undecided. That is similar to a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll last month.

    On issues, they couldn't be further apart. McBride and Bush disagree on almost everything, from the prudence of tax cuts for big business to how standardized testing should be used in the public schools.

    McBride often portrays Bush as out of touch with problems facing real Floridians, such as crowded classrooms and a sputtering economy. Tonight, viewers can expect McBride to mention his middle-class childhood in Leesburg, working his way through college and his decision to leave law school for the Marines and Vietnam.

    But McBride's aw-shucks style and the way he sometimes stares at the camera with wide eyes and hands moving exaggerates his lack of experience.

    Bush, by contrast, is telegenic and at ease on camera. He is a policy wonk and chides McBride for being vague and making expensive promises.

    But he also has a tendency to get mired in minutiae detracting from his broader vision.

    A major gaffe from either would be damaging, and both men have prepared with care.

    Bush periodically leaves the campaign trail for "debate camp" with aides. His latest stand-in for McBride in mock debates is state Rep. Jerry Paul, a Republican from Englewood. Like McBride, he is a military veteran and a lawyer.

    Other McBride surrogates included two former House speakers who are now lobbyists: Republican John Thrasher and Democrat T.K. Wetherell.

    Bush spent two hours Monday practicing at a Tallahassee TV station with his media consultant, Michael Murphy.

    McBride spent the day at home in Thonotosassa near Tampa, but he was not staging mock debates.

    "It's not the way I would do it, but Bill's the candidate," Sink said. "It's what he feels comfortable with."

    McBride's media consultant, David Doak, said he advised him to "be himself."

    "There's always somebody who says you've got to have a different suit, or it's your tie, or your hand gestures," Doak said. "Debates are not about those things. It's about being comfortable, and being who you are, and talking about what you want to talk about."

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