ST. LOUIS Al Gore, widely viewed as too hot in his first debate with George W. Bush and too cold in his second, will try to modulate his demeanor tonight while resisting the temptation to “play it safe.”
The vice president, asked by The Washington Times to share his thoughts on strategy for tonight’s debate, smiled and simply said: “No.” But Gore campaign chairman William Daley stepped in, predicting his boss would “once again be himself.”
“I don’t think you play it safe. I think you try to be very natural and lay out in a forward way the compelling reasons for the election to go in your way,” he said.
Mr. Daley also said the Gore camp is stressed out and anxious, but predicted the Texas governor’s staff is in the same state.
“You got 2 and 1/2 weeks left and it’s coming to a close. So I think both campaigns would have a lot of urgency and a lot of stress and anxiety going on right now, because this is getting onto the final [stretch] in a race that according to the vast majority of polls, private and public is a horse race.”
He acknowledged that both candidates are running out of time in the bid for undecided voters.
“I believe people begin to break in the last 10 days,” Mr. Daley said. “So the stakes are high for both of them because it’s a dead-heat race.”
Trailing in the polls just three weeks before the election, Mr. Gore yesterday trotted out a trio of liberal Texas lawmakers to question the credibility and intelligence of Mr. Bush. It marked the first time such a harsh assessment of the Texas governor was openly embraced by the Gore team, which is growing nervous as the campaign enters its final sprint.
Speaking in St. Louis last night, Mr. Bush said he doesn’t know which Al Gore he will face tonight, but added he couldn’t think of a better place for the final debate than the swing state of Missouri, with its independent-minded voters.
“It’s a state where a lot of people want to take the measure of a man,” he said. “A lot of people interested in somebody who’s going to just tell it like it is not try to be one thing in one debate and then try to be something else in the next debate.”
Mr. Bush said he also expects Mr. Gore to attack his record as governor of Texas tonight.
“I certainly hope so,” said Mr. Bush. “Let him talk about what he wants to talk about. I’m going to talk about the future. My message tomorrow night is not going to be a partisan message. It’s going to be an American message. What I believe America is looking for is someone to bring us together.”
The vice president, who did worse than most political analysts expected in the first two debates, hopes the town-hall format of tonight’s faceoff gives him the edge. Gore aides said their boss has conducted more than 1,000 town-hall meetings over the course of his political career.
“The questions are taken from undecided voters in Missouri and people who are still trying to make up their minds, even if they’re leaning one way or another,” Mr. Gore said. “So I’m going to do what I’ve done a lot of times in Tennessee, and that is have an open meeting.
“If I’m elected president, I will have regular open meetings all across the country with citizens from all walks of life to help shape the agenda of the Gore-Lieberman administration.”
Campaigning in Little Rock, Ark., yesterday, Mr. Bush invoked the names of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Gore as the symbols of bloated government as he geared up in President Clinton’s native state for the final presidential debate tonight.
“Come three weeks from tomorrow, Arkansas is going to be ‘George W.’ country,” he said as the audience of about 2,000 roared their support at the Riverfest amphitheater.
Mr. Bush said his plan for prescription drugs for seniors will give them the freedom to choose the health plan that suits them best.
“I understand it stands in stark contrast to somebody who thought ‘Hillary care’ was the answer to federal health care,” Mr. Bush said to loud boos.
Mr. Bush, trying to maintain his momentum as he heads into this final debate, evoked laughter from the pennant-waving crowd as he called the vice president’s budget plans “Gore-gantuan.”
“I’m running against somebody who wants to increase the size and scope of the federal government,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m running against a man who has such great faith in the federal government that he has proposed more spending than Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale combined.”
The first debate featured the candidates standing at lecterns. In the second debate, they sat at a table with moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. While those formats were viewed as favorable to Mr. Bush, the town-hall meeting is Mr. Gore’s forte.
“This will be a good format,” Mr. Daley said. “It’s not just Bush and Gore, it’s … the person who’s asked the question. So you’ve got to deal with that.”
As he departed Austin yesterday, Mr. Bush told reporters he feels comfortable with the format.
“You have got to know who you are and what you believe, and I know what I believe,” he said. “And I am looking forward to sharing it with people.”
Mr. Gore conducted a dress rehearsal yesterday with 14 “ordinary” Democrats who have been giving him advice on how to handle tonight’s debate.
While Mr. Gore was practicing, his aides flew three Texas lawmakers to St. Louis, where they charged Mr. Bush has exaggerated the amount of money Texas spends to cover uninsured health care recipients.
During last week’s debate, Mr. Bush said “we spent $4.7 billion a year in the state of Texas for uninsured people.” The liberal Texas lawmakers countered that most of that money came from the federal government and charities, not the state itself.
Gore operatives, stung by extensive coverage of the vice president’s tendency to embroider the truth, had planned to make an issue of Mr. Bush’s exaggerations after last week’s debate, but were forced to shelve the attack when crises erupted in the Middle East.
In recent days, the Gore camp has tried to resurrect the attack, with limited success. They expressed frustration yesterday that the vice president’s misstatements have had far more resonance with the press and public.