- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

How do you change a stereotype? George W. the Affable has morphed into George W. the Insecure. Al Gore the Stiff has become Al the Energized. George W. the Resistant Debater lost that argument. Al Gore, the morally challenged fund-raiser, had managed to overcome that image. That was before the money-for-veto disclosures last week.

Curious things happen on the high and low roads of a campaign. Unforeseen enemies emerge like rats in an animated movie cartoon. George W. proves not to be the Pied Piper. A Hollywood kiss turns Al Gore into Tom Selleck.

What's going on here?

Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, dates the detour into decline for George W. from the moment he described Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher. The honeymoon he enjoyed with the reporters and pundits on his campaign plane began to look like big-fault divorce.

By contrast, Al Gore triumphed over the rhetorical moral issues that were so finely tuned at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. The moment he chose Joe Lieberman of "the chosen people" for his running mate, the senator on the side of the politically correct God, Al Gore got a little Jewish gilt by association.

But how is it that Al Gore, the peace and prosperity vice president, has not opened a long lead against the newcomer from Texas?

The reason, of course, lies in the way he successfully manipulates his image for short-range benefit. His over-the-top description of Bill Clinton as "one of our greatest presidents," his euphemisms of "community outreach" and "donor maintenance" to describe his fund-raising at a Buddhist temple, his chameleon-like changes in wardrobe and his need to "practice authenticity," all add up to a very clever but nevertheless hollow man.

He is tepidly, if typically, defended by Maria Hsia, who is probably on her way to prison for organizing the Buddhist temple caper: He did nothing wrong. "All politicians are cowards," she tells the New Yorker. "But they could be better cowards."

So he manages the moment, but his future remains in doubt. What it will be may depend on how George W. debates.

Although George W. is perceived as afraid of debate, he really has nothing to lose and has lots to gain. No matter how you look at the debates, the advantage belongs to the underdog who must dispel the notion that he's vulnerable. As the underpuppy, George W. can play to his strengths, not those of Al Gore.

The Reagan debates are instructive for looking at what works and what doesn't. No one has done quite as badly in any presidential debate as Ronald Reagan in his first one against Walter Mondale in 1984. So distracted, meandering and fuzzy were his words that, in retrospect, some of his critics cite this as the public moment that the first hints of Alzheimer's disease emerged.

But he snapped back in the second debate with the verve of an actor determined that the show must go on. Diffusing the age (not to say senility) issue, he began with the now-famous lines: "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Walter Mondale thinks today that he was perceived to have lost the second debate because everyone had lowered the bar for the Gipper: "All [Reagan] had to do was stay on his feet the second time around."

Mr. Reagan, on the other hand, credits relaxed preparation for the second debate. He did not allow his handlers to stuff him with lots of facts and figures, but left his mind "flexible" enough to be imaginative. (Take note, George W.)

In a wonderful new book called "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV," Alan Schroeder dissects the process with a sharp scalpel to expose every nerve and sinew of the candidates as they struggle to look relaxed and aggressive, smart and funny, congenial and cutthroat, to be a leader who is loveable without looking soft.

"After forty years' experience," he writes, "the electorate has learned to decode the incongruities of live TV debates, watching with a combination of skepticism, amusement, and respect."

A lot like watching "Survivor."

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