Candidates Find the Old Rules Don't Apply

By Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Candidates Find the Old Rules Don't Apply


Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the pantheon of presidential politics, tonight's debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore will be one of the most important in modern history.

With polls showing the lead flip-flopping almost weekly, and with tens of millions of Americans expected to tune in, this first meeting between the two major-party candidates has an unusually high potential to turn the election toward one man or the other.

Because the moment is so pivotal, each candidate has a carefully crafted assignment: Mr. Bush is aiming to exude gravitas and demonstrate his command of the issues, and Mr. Gore is striving to avoid being too aggressive and to show some humanity.

The result may well be a debate that is kinder and gentler than presidential face-offs of the past. While that may appeal to prospective voters, it can also make the candidates' job of crystallizing their

differences much harder.

The race is so close that "they really have to differentiate themselves, but they can't go on the attack," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Their style "can be humor, it can be pathos, it can be emotional, but it can't be nasty."

In this time of general contentment, when threats to national security have abated and the economy seems indestructible, voters see little need for duke-it-out politics. Less attached to political parties, the electorate today simply takes less delight in partisan punches - and even registers its disgust over the rancor that seems to hold official Washington in its grasp.

Both candidates' demeanor in the run-up to tonight's event in Boston betrays the push they feel to "play nice."

Battling an image as the Count Dracula of go-for-the-jugular debaters - one solidified by a recent magazine-cover drawing of Gore with fangs - the vice president was quoted this weekend as saying, "I'm looking at this one differently." He said he'd focus on his own plans for the future more than anything else.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes acknowledges that Gore is a "world- class debater," but says the Texas governor will succeed with his authenticity. "We believe Governor Bush will more than hold his own by speaking from his heart," she said.

All in all, "If they're going to be highly negative so soon after [their TV appearances on] 'Oprah' and 'Regis' - if they're going to show two completely different sides of themselves - voters may say, 'You've got some explaining to do,' " says Rich Harwood, president of The Harwood Institute, a civic advocacy group in Bethesda, Md.

Debate history is rife with examples of candidates who didn't manage to strike the right balance between aggression and affability.

Most recently, US Senate hopeful Rick Lazio of New York came across to some voters as bullying his challenger, Hillary Rodham Clinton, during their debate. Indeed, "Lazio's mishap may be a lesson for Gore," says pollster Del Ali. …

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