- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

SARASOTA, Fla. Vice President Al Gore has gnawed his fingernails down to the nub as he prepares for tomorrow's presidential debate, but he insists he is not nervous about facing off against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush boned up on policy books at his Texas ranch yesterday, steeling himself against the vice president's legendary mastery of wonkish details.

Mr. Bush used a run, a long walk with his wife, Laura, and chopping cedar to get his "batteries recharged" and clear his mind.

At campaign headquarters in Austin, staffers pounced on a new poll showing Mr. Bush slightly ahead in Tennessee, Mr. Gore's home state, pronouncing it "a very heartening development" for the governor and "a very troubling sign" for the vice president.

Both candidates dispatched surrogates to the Sunday morning talk shows to play down expectations for their performances in the first of three presidential debates. But the political stakes are sky-high because 75 million people are expected to tune in for the first face-off in the closest presidential race in a generation.

Mr. Gore, widely viewed as the superior debater, trotted out a dozen ordinary Democrats who are serving as his personal focus group. Asked by The Washington Times if they felt they were being used as political props, the Democrats said no.

"It's hard to believe that Al Gore and his campaign staff will go to this much time and trouble to bring us back here from various parts of the country if we merely were being used as props," said Katherine Cowan of Portland, Ore. "Today has demonstrated to us at what a meaningful and direct level he is seeking input from ordinary citizens on issues that are important to his campaign and to the debates."

The Democrats watched as Mr. Gore squared off against former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, who is playing the role of Mr. Bush in the debate preparations.

"He kept asking us: 'Give me feedback, give me feedback. What do you think? Let's stop a minute, let's go over and ask my special guests,' " said one of the guests, high school principal Joseph Dulin of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Another guest, steelworker Gloria Bingle, tried to explain Mr. Gore's stiffness.

"He's kind of a reserved person by nature," said the resident of Jeannette, Pa. "He's an old-fashioned kind of Southern gentleman with manners, and people are taking that to be stiff, and that isn't what it is at all. That's what I've learned about him."

High-school teacher Donald Jalbert of Lewiston, Maine, added: "We've told him pretty much to be himself. We like him, and we think if he acts like Al Gore, he's going to be OK."

Gore senior adviser Tad Devine said tomorrow's debate is a golden opportunity for the vice president to make his case to the American people. Mr. Devine said internal polling by the Gore campaign shows a "close race," but insisted the vice president is poised to make major gains in the final weeks of the campaign.

Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile agreed.

"Tuesday we will have 700 debate-watching parties across the country, with an average of 10 people per party, in all of the battleground states, as well as all of the other many states that are in play in order for us to get to 270 electoral votes," she said. "People will come together to play close attention and also begin to focus on the final weeks of the campaign. It's a great opportunity for us to galvanize [voters]."

Mr. Begala whose new book is titled "Is Our Children Learning? The Case Against George W. Bush" previewed the debate on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I think Gore wants to make this about issues, about ideas, and I think he's got the better issue train going into this election," said Mr. Begala, who gave Mr. Gore's proposals for Medicare prescription drug coverage for seniors and a uniform minimum wage increase nationwide as examples.

"He is not a man to be underestimated," Mr. Begala said of Mr. Bush. "He likes to return to his basic themes … and I think he will come back with great consistency.

"My fellow Texans underestimated him in 1994 in the Democratic Party. He beat Ann Richards, one of the great governors of my state's history. He beat John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer, very good debaters, in the Republican primary.

"I'm telling you, this is not 'Survivor,' where we just say, 'Well, if Bush gets through it, it's OK.' The judgment should not be who did better than we expected, because Bush will always do better than you expect," said Mr. Begala.

Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican, who also appeared on "Meet the Press" said: "Governor Bush is ready. He's prepared. He wants to speak to the American people without that filter, tell them about his plans, and tell them that he trusts them and that Al Gore would rather trust people in Washington, rather than people across America."

Former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, interviewed on CNN's "Late Edition," said Mr. Gore "can't make how smart he is a liability" in the debate and appear condescending.

"Bush has to prove he has what it takes to lead this country. I'm not sure he's done that," Mr. Lockhart said.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, interviewed on CNN's "Late Edition," predicted Mr. Gore will be the "iceman" in the debate, "a person with all the personality of a razor blade."

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who also appeared on CNN, said he believes Americans watching the debate will be looking for someone who has "in-depth knowledge of the issues, but also a person they can feel comfortable with."

Mr. McCain says he believes Mr. Bush has an advantage with his positions on several issues, such as military readiness and Social Security.

"But debates are unpredictable," he acknowledged.

• Joyce Price contributed to this report.

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