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Debates need a little oomph


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000

Before their debate this week in North Carolina, George W. Bush and Al Gore ought to send their advisers back to the negotiating table.

Instead of worrying about the hall's temperature (65 degrees in Boston last week) and props (prohibited), the candidates should agree on new ground rules that would make their second encounter more palatable.

First, the Texas governor and vice president should call a cease-fire in the numbers game. Throwing around millions, billions and trillions like Monopoly money only confuses viewers and makes them skeptical of all numbers.

"Once they say trillion," said Linda Patton, a 35-year-old Democrat from Largo who was undecided about whom to support before the debate, "that means nothing to me."

Second, the candidates ought to agree on a penalty for talking too much. Gore was particularly guilty of talking beyond the alloted time, often to his own detriment. There is no reward for filibustering.

Third, to paraphrase a former running back's advice to a U.S. Supreme Court justice: loosen up, baby.

Voters are not grading math tests here. The debates are as much about personality and charisma, or lack thereof, as they are about issue papers. Gore's sighs and Bush's pursed lips are not going to attract supporters. Perhaps Wednesday's format, with Bush and Gore seated at a table at Wake Forest University, will lend itself to more natural exchanges.

Post-debate interviews with several undecided voters illustrate that the first encounter between Gore and Bush may have served more to push some leaners than change minds.

Bush's performance, for example, reassured some Republicans that he is smart enough to be president and capable of standing on the same stage with Gore. David Anderson of Clearwater and Robert Kaiser of Largo are two Republicans who had described themselves undecided but said they were leaning toward Bush after watching the debate.

"I wanted to make sure Bush knew the issues and could go toe-to-toe with Gore," said Kaiser, a 53-year-old former restaurant owner.

Some voters seized on different lines and numbers than the media spotlights.

For example, several undecided voters caught Gore's line that Bush's proposed tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers add up to more than the Texas governor would spend on health care, prescription drugs and national defense. But they were at least as intrigued by Bush's assertion that the annual return on Social Security investments is just 2 percent.

That is the inflation-adjusted rate of return projected for Social Security for workers born after 1963. The figure could be a powerful argument for Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts.

It also proved smart for Gore to clearly point out that he favors abortion rights and Bush doesn't, despite the Texas governor's talk of searching for common ground. Lisa Caldwell, a 48-year-old independent voter from Largo, said she would vote for Bush -- if Bush did not oppose abortion rights.

"Al, I don't know," she said. "I know they made a big deal about the kiss and all, but he doesn't seem very warm."

But she is leaning toward Gore because of his support for abortion rights.

This week in North Carolina, Bush and Gore face some of the same challenges that have shadowed them throughout the campaign.

For Bush, it is not enough to demonstrate he is intellectually capable of discussing subjects that do not require correctly pronouncing the names of foreign leaders. Anyone who has followed the campaign closely dismissed the cliches about his intelligence long ago.

The Texas governor is essentially running against an incumbent. He has to make a convincing case for ousting Gore at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. Merely performing above the worst expectations is not enough to break open a tight race.

Comparisons have been made to Ronald Reagan's convincing performance against Jimmy Carter in 1980's debates. But the circumstances were different. Inflation was high, confidence in Carter was low, and the desire for a change in direction was much more widespread than it is today.

Bush should talk more about education and less about tax cuts that most voters don't support. He should re-emphasize his willingness to work with members of both parties and drop the lines about President Clinton's scandals. And he should forget the memorized answers and let his personality shine through.

Gore should take more credit for the administration's accomplishments, despite his fear of being tarred by Clinton's impeachment. He should not be afraid to review Bush's record in Texas in areas such as the environment and health insurance. And he should stop acting like the kid in school who raised his hand to answer every question and wouldn't shut up.

The vice president could easily find himself in step with most Americans on key issues and a loser on Election Day because of his perceived arrogance.

With any luck, Wednesday's debate should provide a more engaging format that will enable both men to reveal more of themselves than they did last week.

If not, the heavy sighs won't be coming just from Gore. They will be from television viewers as they switch channels.

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