The opinion polls are stabilizing now in the wake of the Democratic and GOP conventions, the bounces having encountered the laws of entropy, and all signs are that Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush will enter the last lap of this White House race deadlocked in terms of the popular vote. The contest could swing on the forthcoming presidential debates.
Judging by the confident noises coming from the vice president's advisers, they believe their man has a distinct edge over Bush when it comes to the cut-and-thrust of verbal jousting. With the Electoral College map still favoring the Texas governor, they are looking to Gore for a clean kill in at least one of the three planned encounters between the two.
The vice president's debate record is indeed good: He flattened Ross Perot in a televised face-off about the North American Free Trade Agreement and he made mincemeat of an ill-prepared Jack Kemp in 1996. On paper neither of those opponents appeared to be pushovers but both left the stage with their reputations in tatters.
Gore also acquitted himself tolerably against incumbent veep Dan Quayle in 1992 -- not something to boast about some may argue. In fact, Quayle was selected by Bush senior in 1988 partly on the basis of the sharp debating skills he displayed in his senatorial campaigns. There is therefore a history that inspires Gore's aides. Combine the vice president's track record with the trait Bush apparently inherited from his father of fumbling pronunciation and murdering syntax, and the smart money has to be on Gore corning out of the debates very well.
But pride goeth before a fall. Bush has been here before: facing a formidable debater in the endgame of a deadlocked election campaign. Back in 1994 in his successful first gubernatorial race, he confronted the then-incumbent Texas governor Ann Richards, arguably a better debater than Gore and one possessed with razor-sharp wit to zing opponents with withering one-liners. It was Richards who delighted the 1984 Democratic National Convention with her derisive "poor George" speech in which she ridiculed Bush senior as having been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
There was much anticipation in the Lone Star State about a face-off between Richards and the Son of Silver Foot. The smart money was on Richards, especially as Bush's aides seemed reluctant to field their man in verbal combat, something we are seeing again in this presidential race. More than 80 debate invitations were received by the candidates from state media outlets and other Texas organizations, but the Bush camp rejected all but one. A wave of mocking attacks ensued from the Richards camp. The state media went to work on Bush, too, asking, "What gives?" and pointing out that normally it is the challenger who wants to debate and the incumbent who seeks to defer. …