- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

George W. Bush and Al Gore finally confront each other face to face tonight, with Mr. Bush promising plain talk in their first nationally televised presidential debate and Mr. Gore hoping he has mastered a crash course on that very subject.
A top adviser to Mr. Gore yesterday predicted that the vice president would eat the Texas governor's lunch in the debate, although a Gore spokesman insisted his boss would try to remain positive.
Already looking ahead to tonight's post-debate "spin cycle," in which Gore and Bush aides will tell reporters that their man won, Gore adviser Greg Simon yesterday sang a ditty to the tune of "When You're a Jet," from the musical "West Side Story."
"In the same room with the press in a bunch, we'll explain how Al Gore ate George W.'s lunch," Mr. Simon sang.
Mr. Bush warmed up for the debate yesterday with a spirited rally in the traditionally Democratic stronghold of West Virginia, while Mr. Gore remained in Florida to brush up for their encounter, scheduled to start at 9 tonight in Boston.
Both sides say the stakes are extremely high, with the candidates in a dead heat in most polls.
"We're five weeks away from changing Washington, D.C.," Mr. Bush told thousands of cheering supporters from a bunting-draped barge along the south bank of the Ohio River. "We're five weeks away from bringing a new attitude to Washington."
The 90-minute debate estimated to be viewed by upward of 75 million people will be broadcast on ABC, CBS, CNN and PBS. Some NBC affiliates also will carry the event, but others will carry the Major League Baseball playoffs.
Just four in 10 voters say they are very likely to watch the first debate of the presidential campaign about the same as in 1996 and significantly lower than in 1992 when two-thirds were very likely to watch, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center.
Only three in 10 said the debate will affect their vote, the poll of 600 registered voters taken Sept. 22 through Sunday found.
Mr. Bush spoke only briefly about the debate in his sole campaign event yesterday. He told the crowd of more than 5,000 in Huntington of his plans for a $1.3 trillion tax cut and warned them that Mr. Gore opposes its scope.
"You wait until tomorrow," Mr. Bush said yesterday. "Tomorrow in the debate you'll hear him say, 'Oh, we can't do that.' You know why? Because he trusts government, and I trust people.
"My opponent wants to increase the size of government, the biggest increase since 1965," Mr. Bush said. "He loves the idea that there's a surplus. He loves to take the working people's money and expand Washington, D.C. It's unbelievable how big government will be under him."
As the candidates made their last-minute preparations for the contest, each camp was trying to downplay expectations. Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said the Republican nominee simply wants to show Americans that he's "a straight talker, a man whose word they can trust."
"The governor has not been debating all his life, that's for sure," Mr. Evans said on NBC's "Today" show. "The vice president has spent the better part of his career debating. He's been in the halls of Congress debating, in the Senate debating, as a vice president has been debating.
"The governor has been leading … in the private sector, building his own company, leading in his own community, running the United Way, leading the Texas Rangers, leading his own state. So he's been leading the last 15 or 20 years while the vice president has certainly spent a lot of time debating," Mr. Evans said.
Tonight's televised debate will be the 44th of Mr. Gore's political career since 1984. Mr. Bush has participated in about one-third that many debates, in two Texas gubernatorial races and the Republican presidential primaries.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane was diplomatic about his boss's prospects tonight. Asked by The Washington Times what Mr. Gore must do to win, Mr. Lehane said the vice president would accentuate the positive.
"He just needs to go out there and tell people what he believes in, what his agenda is," said Mr. Lehane, giving health care, education and Social Security as examples.
Asked whether his boss would go after Mr. Bush, Mr. Lehane said: "You never know how the debate evolves. But the vice president is going into this debate with the focus on talking about his agenda, looking toward the future."
Renowned as a ruthless debater, Mr. Gore practiced yesterday at a shark aquarium, standing on a stage beneath a fiberglass shark.
The underwater beast was fitted with a leather-and-brass "mule harness" that Mr. Gore has used as a good luck charm to prepare for every debate since 1992, when the harness hung in a barn in his hometown of Carthage, Tenn., said Mr. Gore's brother-in-law, Frank Hunger.
Mr. Gore has prepared for the debate with a focus group of 13 "real people" who gave him advice on how to speak plainly to viewers. One of the knocks against Mr. Gore in such debates is that he can appear too stiff and professorial, and talk down to his audience.
Bush spokesman Karen Hughes told reporters on the campaign plane yesterday that Mr. Bush has had his fill of advice and just wants to "be himself" in the debate.
"What we want is to show the governor's heart, and his convictions and his philosophy," Mrs. Hughes said. "He wants to talk about the specifics of his tax-cut plan, he wants to talk about the specifics of his Medicare plan, he wants to talk about the specifics of his plan to reform public schools. He told me this morning, he said, 'I'm hearing from everybody.' He's listening to a lot of different people. I think that what he will do is he'll just try to be himself."
Mrs. Hughes said she was dubious of reports that Mr. Gore's aides were coaching him to be less confrontational than in past debates.
"In a pressure situation, you tend to revert to your natural instincts," she said. "And as Bill Bradley said, [Mr. Gore's] natural instincts are to attack and distort. They're trying to tone him down so he won't come across as too condescending or attack-oriented."
Mr. Bush and his inner circle want to go after Mr. Gore tonight on the lack of a national energy policy, which has become a campaign issue as gasoline prices have soared in recent months topping $2 per gallon in some areas.
The Republican nominee gave the audience in coal-producing West Virginia yesterday a preview of his likely theme in the debate.
"An amazing thing happened last week," Mr. Bush said. "Al Gore realized we have an energy problem. This is an administration that fears coal. I see it as an opportunity to make us less dependent on foreign oil."
He was accompanied on the floating stage by out-of-work coal miners wearing hard hats.
"I want to put people back to work who aren't working in this part of the world," Mr. Bush said. "These folks standing behind me, their wallets can't stand four more years of Clinton-Gore."
Mr. Bush last week criticized Mr. Gore for letting imports rise from 50 percent to 56 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption over the past eight years. He proposed a 23-point energy plan to make America less reliant on foreign oil, including a proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration. Mr. Gore opposes that move.
Dave Boyer, traveling with George W. Bush, reported from Huntington, W.Va.; Bill Sammon, traveling with Al Gore, reported from Sarasota, Fla.

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