- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

As the presidential candidates head into the second of three televised debates tonight, they will draw upon lessons learned from their first appearance together as they seek once again to make inroads with undecided voters.

Expect both to be relaxed and less wonky more earnest beagle than agitated pit bull as they square off at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a more comfortable setting that is expected to draw fewer viewers than their much-hyped meeting last week.

A few changes are predictable as both sides study the first debate's fallout and attempt to be more appealing.

Vice President Al Gore's breathing problems are certain be solved, largely because of the criticism he drew with his audible sighing.

When the vice president dips into the nation's anecdote well to make his case, this time his stories likely will be less embellished. No more Carl Hiassen-esque tales of Winnebagos, poodles, and senior citizen can-collecting to make ends meet.

Although Texas Gov. George W. Bush made no major semantic or factual gaffes that could haunt him, he is unlikely to utter again the words "fuzzy math" or "Mediscare," which came off as feeble attempts at prefabricated sound bites.

While some pollsters said Mr. Gore won the debate, the vice president's bombastic style and seeming proclivity for bending the truth lost him points on image and perception, which he most likely will try to correct even without wife Tipper to kiss.

Although a post-debate Gallup poll found that voters see Mr. Gore as the smarter of the two candidates, he lost considerable ground on honesty and trustworthiness as press accounts determined that he had stretched the truth.

"I think there's incredible pressure on Gore," Republican political consultant Charlie Black said of the candidates' second face-off.

"The whole country is going to be watching him to see if he can go through 90 minutes without exaggerating, embellishing or misstating," said Mr. Black, who has served as an adviser to the Bush campaign.

As for Mr. Bush, his nervous inarticulation actually won him likability points with voters who thought he seemed more human, the same Gallup poll found. Although he has been cast as less knowledgeable than Mr. Gore, who emphasizes his points with statistics, the poll also showed that voters think Mr. Bush is more visionary and a stronger leader.

The second debate's setting with the candidates seated behind a desk provides an excellent arena for Mr. Bush to gain ground on his issues. He will capitalize on his Texas folksiness as he seeks not to preach, but rather to have a conversation about his plans for the nation. One on one, say observers, is where Mr. Bush is at his best.

"It's a very good format for Bush," said Mr. Black. "I expect him to be himself, plain-spoken and very civil."

Thursday's vice-presidential debate set a benchmark for the tops of the ticket, who might consider casting aside egos and taking some pointers from their running mates, said one observer who called the first Bush-Gore debate performance "embarrassing."

"These are second-tier characters and in some ways their second bananas are better than they are," said University of Florida professor Jim Twitchell.

The vice-presidential debate was moderated by the affable Bernard Shaw of CNN, who, unlike presidential-debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, kept pleasant control of the proceedings. Both Republican Richard B. Cheney and Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman came across as intellectually elegant and gentlemanly.

While Mr. Lieberman gave the audience a prolonged "mensch" moment during his opening statement, he and Mr. Cheney gained ground with their at-ease demeanor, showing they were able to take punches without schoolboy theatrics.

The effusive Mr. Lieberman came across as warm, fuzzy and wise, just as Mr. Cheney was wry, witty and coolly thoughtful some said more presidential than either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore.

Neither presidential candidate debates well, says Mr. Twitchell, who notes that he already is growing nostalgic for President Clinton, who was not his favorite candidate, but nonetheless possessed a "caricature of vitality."

"They are really not interesting to look at or to listen to," said Mr. Twitchell, who thinks the candidates illustrate a certain advertising phenomenon called fungibility, "where the interchangeability of the product is so complete that only the advertising story can separate them."

Because the candidates seem so dull, Mr. Twitchell says, voters will tune out the debates and vote for a candidate on the basis of a key issue like abortion, where the lines are clearly drawn.

"I think that is how people are going to ultimately take it, to sort of a single deciding event," he said. "The rest of it is so gobbledygook and so filled with personal 'fuzzy math' on one side or 'lockbox' on the other. There's really no there, there."

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