LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. Vice President Al Gore said yesterday he will “try not to get any details wrong” in tonight’s second presidential debate so he will not fuel charges about his trustworthiness.
Mr. Gore also said he plans to cut down on his audible sighs and his seeming impatience during his sit-down faceoff with Texas Gov. George W. Bush at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
“I take responsibility for getting some of the details wrong” during the Oct. 3 debate in Boston, Mr. Gore said yesterday in an interview with Fox News Channel at Manatee Community College in Bradenton.
Mr. Gore admitted he misspoke when he said at the debate he viewed fire damage in Texas with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Gore actually met with an aide to Mr. Witt.
“While I’ve made 16 or 17 similar trips with James Lee Witt, that one two years ago was with one of his assistants, instead. And I got that wrong and I take responsibility for that,” Mr. Gore said.
“I’m going to try not to get any details wrong because it can give rise to the kind of charges that were leveled.”
Mr. Gore also said at the first debate that a girl who attends Sarasota High School was forced to stand in her overcrowded science class. Principal Daniel Kennedy later said the class was short a desk for just one day.
Mr. Gore acknowledged yesterday that the girl stood for only a short time, but said the thrust of his story was more important.
“That doesn’t change the fact that there are still 36 students squeezed into that classroom that’s meant for 24,” Mr. Gore said. “But the details are important. I’ll try to do better.”
Mr. Gore debuted his new style at an appearance yesterday morning discussing higher education.
Taking a break from debate preparation, Mr. Gore spoke in Florida on the importance of helping Americans afford college education. He lunged into his usual statistic-laden style of remarks and at one point said that in recent years the wage gap between high school graduates and college graduates “has quadrupled.”
Mr. Gore then paused, his hand frozen in midgesture, and added an uncharacteristic “I’m told” before continuing with his stump speech.
Mr. Gore’s ratings in the CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll have dropped since the first debate, with the vice president trailing the Texas governor by eight points. But yesterday’s tracking poll showed Mr. Gore gaining slightly, pulling to three points behind Mr. Bush.
Mr. Gore apparently turned off many voters during the first debate by rolling his eyes, interrupting Mr. Bush and audibly sighing, signaling impatience with Mr. Bush. “Saturday Night Live” parodied Mr. Gore’s performance with an actor playing the vice president saying: “Jim, I’d like to interrupt here and answer that question as if it were my turn to speak.”
Mr. Gore has spent three days practicing at the Mote Marine Laboratory, working on how he presents himself, as well as how to respond to new questions about his trustworthiness. Michael Sheehan, a theater director, helped Mr. Gore prepare for tonight’s “Larry King” style debate.
“First of all, I think I’ll sigh a little bit less” tonight, Mr. Gore told Fox News Channel.
“I think both the governor and I have learned lessons about when the microphone is off and when it is on.”
He said the format, in which both candidates sit across a table from moderator Jim Lehrer, will produce a more intimate exchange than the formal setting at the first debate in which both candidates stood behind lecterns.
“I’ve learned from the first one, I guarantee you,” Mr. Gore said.
“You’re saying the eye-rolling and the sighing was a major-league mistake?” Fox interviewer Jim Angle asked.
Mr. Gore laughed and said, “Big time.”
The exchange was a play on Mr. Bush’s profanity about a New York Times reporter. Mr. Bush said the reporter was a “major-league” rectal aperture. His running mate, Richard B. Cheney, agreed, saying: “Big time.”
The aide said Mr. Gore must make tonight’s debate a forum about “issues and not personalities.”
Mr. Gore repeated yesterday that he does not want his campaign to engage in negative personal attacks. But Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani this week called Mr. Bush a “babbler” and a “bumbler.”
“I wouldn’t say it that way,” Mr. Gore said. “I think that the larger point that the tax cut going mostly to the wealthy is not a good proposal and it’s difficult to explain it in a way that makes it appealing.”
The Gore aide said the vice president may bring up Mr. Bush’s environmental record in Texas.
“I think Bush’s record is cannon fodder for a lot of issues,” the aide said.
An energized Mr. Bush returned to the campaign trail yesterday stopping off in Mr. Gore’s home state of Tennessee after days of debate preparation, promising to press his advantage in the polls and draw sharp distinctions with his opponent.
“I look forward to [tonight’s debate] because there are great differences of opinion in our campaigns” Mr. Bush told a huge crowd at the airport in Bristol in rural eastern Tennessee. “My opponent is of Washington, by Washington and for Washington. He thinks all knowledge comes from Washington, D.C.”
Mr. Bush’s staff promised that Mr. Bush would remain polite and stick to issues. They mocked Mr. Gore’s eye-rolling and sighing.
“I think the voters reacted rather badly to the vice president’s rather condescending tone,” spokeswoman Karen Hughes told reporters on Mr. Bush’s aircraft as it headed out of Austin to Winston-Salem, N.C. “I think they realized that this is a process of two accomplished people running for president and they both deserve to be treated with respect.
“The vice president will be trying his best to appear to be nice in this debate … but in the course of 90 minutes, a pressure situation, the real person tends to come out,” Mrs. Hughes said.
Mr. Bush and his staff worked throughout the weekend in Texas preparing the governor for his debate, the second of three meetings between the rivals. The campaign refused to say exactly what Mr. Bush worked on during the practice sessions, but they previewed a few themes yesterday.
Mrs. Hughes said, for example, that Mr. Bush worked more on foreign policy issues this time, if only because of recent events in the news such as the violence in the Middle East. In the first debate, Mr. Bush looked uncomfortable during the one question about foreign policy, dealing with the situation in Serbia.
Mr. Bush also debuted his answer to Mr. Gore’s repeated charge that most of the Bush tax cut benefits the wealthy. The campaign says that only about 20 percent of the tax cut goes to the very wealthy who pay one-third of all income taxes and that the poorest taxpayers receive the greater percentage of tax relief.
Mr. Bush told the crowd at his first rally yesterday that his tax cut is a question of fairness, with rich and poor sharing alike in his plans. He said Mr. Gore’s arguments are an effort to pit rich and poor against one another.
“We’re all Americans, we’re all Americans,” he said. “You can’t achieve a better tomorrow by pitting one group against another.”
Mr. Bush picked Bristol as his first stop this week to tweak Mr. Gore. Polls show that Mr. Bush enjoys a narrow lead in Tennessee, Mr. Gore’s home state.
He said Mr. Gore will not carry the state he once called home because “it seems like so long ago in the distant past” that he lived here that “he forgot to trust the people of Tennessee.”
“It’s been so long since he was here, he forgot what it’s like to be with the working people,” Mr. Bush said.
Sean Scully, traveling with George W. Bush in Tennessee, contributed to this report.