- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

As the hotly anticipated first presidential debate approaches, style mongers, media strategists and other serious political observers are gearing up to dish and spin. Their gab runs the gamut from fashion to focus and no question is unworthy of discussion.

Should Al Gore fly his Alpha-male earth tones or wear the serious Beltway uniform of Navy blue suit, white shirt and forgettable tie?

Will Texas Gov. George W. Bush choose safely from his closet of Brooks Brothers or show a little Texas flair in a pair of his favorite Western boots?

On the image front, can Mr. Gore stop talking to voters as if they were third-graders and distance himself from the Clinton controversies, all the while showing he has the mettle to be a world leader?

Will Mr. Bush dispense with the off-putting smirk and lose the folksiness conceding the states he needs most care little about three-alarm chili to appear smart, charming and worthy of the nation's highest office?

Tonight's debate promises to be a political smackdown for insiders, but in reality it is a major pitch for those who have yet to make up their minds. While each candidate played nice at his respective convention, the debates are a money moment with much on the line as the race has tightened in recent polls.

Each must do his best to appear strong but not stiff, intelligent but not wonky, a likable everyguy who is ready to be the leader of the free world. Issues matter, but perception is everything, and images count. Both sides know a gaffe could be costly, but a good one-liner could bring a perceived victory.

"There you go again," said President Reagan in 1984, shaking his head and grinning as he used humor to effectively diffuse a Walter Mondale punch.

"Who am I? Why am I here?" asked Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, a decorated war hero, but an inexperienced politician who uttered a dodo of a sound bite that has yet to be forgotten.

A host of television comedy writers stand by this year, as always, ready for another classic fall. A sure sign of a monumental screw-up is to inspire a skit on "Saturday Night Live." A certain measure of success is a quote that makes it into the headlines.

GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick of the Polling Co. in the District said the candidates must focus on creating memorable moments, particularly for those folks who won't watch the debates but will turn to the news and make decisions based on the highlights.

If the candidates seize control of the moment, they are less at the mercy of reporters, who no doubt will be handicapping their performance and making decisions on who won and who lost, she said.

"The debates typify the important combination of substance, sound bite and visual bite," she said. "The way that plays out for either one of them is you have to plan for the Maalox moments and try to create a couple of magical moments."

As for a winning strategy?

Mr. Bush, said Miss Fitzpatrick, has the advantage on being likable. Mr. Gore "needs to work on the warm and fuzzies."

"I know the debate is Bush versus Gore, but if [Mr. Bush] can convert it back to Gore versus Gore and make him defend his own record, his own inconsistencies, that will infuriate Gore to the point where his choirboy game-day face will turn into the natural scowl and frown that is its resting place."

One thing is for certain, says Democratic political consultant Hal Dash. The first debate will draw the ratings.

"The Olympics are over, the baseball playoffs just starting," said Mr. Dash, president of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles. "I think people are now ready to focus on the election. The so-called swing voters in key states … will be watching."

Mr. Dash predicts Mr. Bush likely will use his first appearance with Mr. Gore to appeal to women voters a segment in which he needs to gain ground.

"Gore has a gender gap with white men," Mr. Dash said. "I think he needs to appeal that he's one of the guys and understands the issues while at the same time not being above the average person's level."

Wilfred McClay, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says Mr. Bush has to establish himself "as a serious, thoughtful, articulate, mature and decisive man, fully ready for the big leagues, capable of stepping in and being a world leader."

Mr. McClay and other observers say Mr. Bush must think of Ronald Reagan as he prepares, challenging Mr. Gore forcefully and confidently, without conveying any hint that he needs to prove himself.

Mr. Reagan "never, ever conveyed the sense that he had anything to prove to anyone, even though he did," said Mr. McClay. "This involves conveying not just facts, but a kind of philosophical vision of an America that empowers people to make their own choices about health care, about retirement, about schooling and about spending their own money."

Rice University political scientist Earl Black said Mr. Gore must avoid appearing condescending to voters.

"He can't afford to patronize the nation by parading his expertise."

The stakes are high for both candidates, but since Mr. Gore has more national experience, "I think the expectations are higher for him," said Mr. Black.

"If Bush can manage to win a draw in the minds of viewers, that's actually a pretty good performance for Bush," he added. "This is the first chance that a lot of voters will have had to directly compare and contrast the major alternatives."

Pollster John Zogby thinks Mr. Bush has to be "charming, winsome, the kind of person that he is on the campaign line shaking hands."

"That's his ultimate bond with voters," he said.

At the same time, he said, Mr. Bush "needs to show sufficient depth in order to show people he's up to the job."

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