- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Tonight's the night. George W. can close the sale with a solid performance in his third and final "debate" with Al Gore.

The momentum what George W.'s daddy called "the big mo" has been bearing George W. along since shortly after Labor Day, building slowly, and bursting out of the fog of partisan rhetoric and through the media filter (only slightly less partisan) after the first debate two weeks ago.

And now the polls are beginning to show it. George W.'s margins are not large, but they are outside the margins of error, and they're consistent as the campaign moves into the stretch when even small leads are difficult to overcome.

CNN-USA Today puts George W. up by 5 points, ICR by 4, and Voter.com Battleground, which may be the most reliable of all, by 4 points. The Battleground Poll is a daily tracking poll, picking up the fluctuations based on issues great and small, and George W. has been ahead in this one for the past week, suggesting that more and more voters are finally making up their minds after not paying much attention for months.

Not only that, but George W. is closing gaps in unlikely places, such as Michigan, where his prospects are bright; California, where he has an outside chance to win, and even in New York, where he has no chance at all. The New York poll is nevertheless an interesting reflection of momentum the gut feeling that pols, pollsters and sometimes even pundits have when they see a campaign moving a certain candidate's way.

However, even if the polls are correct an "if" of considerable size they reflect a race that is exceedingly close, and could be scrambled again if Al Gore uses tonight's debate to attempt a dramatic breakthrough. He might try to do that by fishing in the shark pool that is the Middle East, perhaps by breaking with President Clinton and taking sides, with a denunciation of the Palestinian embrace of street violence and rebuking Arab intransigence. He wouldn't be looking for an argument so much as trying to rattle George W. with a genuine discussion of foreign policy.

George W., who had been huddling with his top advisers all weekend in Texas before leaving for St. Louis yesterday morning with a campaign stop in Little Rock, is presumably prepared for an October surprise. But he was not prepared last week for Al's attack on Texas.

Al has no cause for panic, but he might justify, if only to himself, a little desperation. Not since 1988 has a Republican candidate looked so buff this late in the campaign. The rule of thumb, insofar as campaigns have thumbs, is that the man ahead on Labor Day wins in November. That would be Al Gore. Jimmy Carter was ahead when he debated Ronald Reagan in 1980, fell back afterward and the only thing we've heard from him since is the sound of his hammer and the buzz of his handsaw. Not a good augury for Al.

Al has only himself to blame, having looked like a liar the polite term is "serial exaggerator" in the first debate, and a punch-drunk welterweight in the second, looking for opportunities to get into a clinch to avoid taking or delivering a counterpunch.

What Al had going for him is the impression that he's no longer anything like Bill Clinton. If someone had mentioned Jamie Lee Witt to him, and a weekend trip to a Texas disaster, the president would have heard it as an inquiry about a weekend with Jamie Lee Curtis, and entered a plea that he just couldn't remember.

Some of the polls showing George W. ahead now show that he isn't rated much better than Al on "trust" and "truthfulness." That probably means that voters are fed up with politicians generally, and maybe this year's candidates in particular. There's always a rash of "pox on everyone" at this stage of the campaign. But "trust" is another word for "likability," and nearly everyone likes George W. enough to want to trust him. Nobody is looking for a reason to "like" Al, sweetheart that Tipper says he is.

Over the past fortnight George W. has showed himself in command of foreign policy, or at least close enough. He tapped into a native American distrust of foreign entanglements with his remark that he envisions an America strong but "humble." The word "humble" sounds good, and everyone gets to define it for himself. What George W. has to be wary of tonight is that voters may have the jitters in the way they didn't a week ago, whether over the Middle East or the skittishness of the stock markets.

The governor is playing a deft game, fuzzing the differences between Al and himself, having correctly taken the measure of the voters. This is not a year for issues, but for Oprah and personality. If that means kissin' babes as well as babies, he's demonstrated that he remembers how to pucker up, too.

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