George W. Bush’s laid-back style in the final presidential debate Tuesday night contrasted with Al Gore’s “pushy” demeanor, analysts and pollsters say.
“Al Gore did exactly what Republicans wanted him to do,” Republican pollster Ed Goeas said. “He was too aggressive and gave the impression of a bully always in an attack mode.”
The presidential contest hinges on “swing” voters in key states who were not likely to be swayed by Mr. Gore’s aggression, Mr. Goeas said.
“Our assumption is that Gore’s pushiness was a turnoff for swing voters,” he said. “Gore was too fierce in body language to make them comfortable.”
What Republicans saw as “pushiness” from the vice president was a pleasing feistiness in the eyes of Democrats.
Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic strategist in California, said, “I’m not spinning for Gore, so I can say I had no desire to see the second debate again, even though I had it on tape. But in the third debate, Gore was himself, animated and aggressive. I thought he was good enough so that he might win over the undecideds. We’ll see.”
Mr. Cerrell thought Mr. Bush, on the other hand, did well but looked as if “he was playing out the clock, trying not to make any mistakes.”
Democratic campaign consultant David Townsend said Mr. Gore “moved the issue off personality to differences based on issues, which is the only way he is going to win.”
Mr. Townsend said that “of the two candidates, most people think the guy they would rather go out and have a beer with is Bush. Gore had to remind people on Tuesday night that it’s not about that, but about being the CEO of what is, in effect, the largest corporation in the world.”
Various “instant” polls showed the debate was a tie with viewers an ABC survey had 41 percent for both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore.
Independent pollster John Zogby judged the event to be a “slight victory for Gore, like the first debate. He tried very hard to deliver a knockout blow to Bush, but I don’t think he succeeded.”
Mr. Zogby noted the vice president’s combative moves, as when Mr. Gore broke the debate rules by standing a few feet from Mr. Bush to ask “What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?” a reference to health care reform legislation.
“Gore walked right into Bush’s personal zone,” Mr. Zogby said. “And he almost invaded the audience on several occasions, marching right up to their toes it made people in the front rows a little uncomfortable. This was an aggressive and worried Gore.”
Mr. Bush’s folksy, relaxed manner reminded Mr. Zogby of a former Republican president.
“Clearly, Bush has determined that he can run a race like Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Zogby said.
“There are times that style beams a certain kind of message about leadership and governing philosophy that trumps showing off a knowledge of details,” he said. “So far, that’s what’s coming out of the debates.”
Still, in Mr. Zogby’s view, it’s hard to say who reached the undecided voters more effectively. “Probably what undecided voters saw is elements in both candidates that they liked and disliked, and it’s a difficult choice for them.”
Supporters of both candidates will have to wait several days for polls to reflect the impact of the final debate. But going into the debate, the Texas governor had a 47 percent to 40 percent lead, well beyond the margin of error of 1.8 percentage points in the most recent Portrait of America survey of 3,000 likely voters, conducted Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“The election is Bush’s to lose,” said Scott Rasmussen, whose Portrait of America survey started out tracking 750 likely voters nightly on March 20 but recently increased its voter interviews to 1,000 every night.
The Bush campaign’s internal assessment is that it has a bigger lead than some of the published polls indicate, but not big enough for comfort. Events between now and Election Day still could change the outcome.
The prime debate target was swing voters, made up largely of women and independents, and Mr. Bush was doing well with both going into the debate, said Mr. Goeas, who conducts the bipartisan Battleground 2000 tracking poll with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.