By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000
ST. LOUIS -- Finally, a debate worth watching.
Al Gore and George W. Bush were at their best Tuesday night, offering spirited criticisms of each other's programs and strong defenses of their own. Their policy differences were clear, their rhetoric was sharper and their personalities shone through.
The result was that the last of three presidential debates turned out to be the most informative and entertaining. It may not break open the tightest race in 40 years, but it certainly made the choices clearer.
Gore finally performed like Gore the veteran debater. The vice president, after muzzling himself last week, aggressively went after Bush right from the start. It was a performance reminiscent of those where he carved up Bill Bradley in New Hampshire before the primaries, and he stuck closer to the facts.
On a patient's bill of rights, prescription drug benefits for seniors, education and affirmative action, the vice president underscored the differences and cited specifics. He invited voters to back Bush if they were on the side of big drug companies or health maintenance organizations.
"We have a big difference on this," Gore said during a discussion about health care, "and you need to know the record here."
At one point, Gore even took a few steps toward Bush and seemed to surprise the Texas governor and underscored the combative mood at Washington University in St. Louis.
After spending much of the campaign running away from the Clinton administration, the vice president also took some credit for a prosperous economy, eliminating the federal deficit and reducing the size of the federal government.
Gore's theme was that Bush cannot be trusted to keep the economy strong or help all people in areas ranging from tax cuts to health care to education.
Bush's message was two-pronged. He repeatedly talked of the partisanship that gridlocks Washington, emphasizing that he has worked with members of both parties in Texas. And he regularly portrayed Gore as a fan of big spending and big government.
"If this were a spending contest," Bush said, "I'd come in second."
The Texas governor, initially appearing a bit surprised by Gore's forcefulness, quickly found his own voice. He sounded particularly heartfelt discussing his favorite subject, education. And he handled with dignity a question about whether he is proud that Texas leads the nation in executions.
At times, both men fell into their old habits.
Gore insisted on trying to extend his answers or interrupt, which contributes to criticism that he is arrogant and condescending. Bush occasionally fell back on stale sound bites and generalities.
The three debates were overrated and, yes, over analyzed. They drew mediocre audiences, reinforced opinions held by decided voters and probably didn't motivate anyone new to get off their couch.
Regardless of the post-debate spin, this race probably will remain tight right through the end. The ever-so-slight momentum Bush sniffs in the air has more to do with cable television analysts filling air time than with any substantial shift. By most counts, there are roughly 150 electoral votes and more than a dozen states still up for grabs.
Gore's strategic challenge is the same one he has had for weeks. He has less money to work with than Bush and more states to shore up. Oregon and Washington, worth a combined 18 electoral votes, are toss-ups and should be locked up by Democrats. So are the combined 22 electoral votes in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where Bush will campaign today.
Bush has his own problems.
Republican Govs. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, John Engler of Michigan and Jeb Bush of Florida are having trouble delivering their states. A new Florida poll by the American Research Group taken Thursday through Monday shows Gore at 47 percent and Bush at 45 percent, a statistical tie.
The race is very fluid, and the candidates now have 20 days to define themselves one more time.
Tuesday night's debate was a good start. But with so much uncertainty, Bush and Gore may return to their cautious ways. They are so concerned about making a mistake and losing that they are afraid to take a calculated risk and win.
The rest of us are still waiting for that October surprise that will energize voters and decide the race. Tuesday night's performances by both men were strong, but they were not decisive.