With just two weeks remaining until the first meeting on October 3 in Boston the only debate to follow the conventional structure Bush may be feeling a bit of trepidation. This is not his preferred format; the governor's campaign staff pushed hard for a lineup restricted to more "free-flowing" exchanges. Instead, Bush will have to get through one tough evening before relief hits. Gore is widely considered the favorite in the first debate; the vice president's formal manner and encyclopedic grasp of complicated issues are well suited to the ultra-structured format. He'll also get a nice assist from Bush's relative inexperience and the governor's tendency to be thrown off-message or into sound-bite-ready malapropism by unexpected questions or specific challenges.
The second meeting, scheduled for October 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., is Bush's best bet. Seated around a table, and moderated loosely by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, the candidates won't so much debate as discuss. Bush's folksy demeanor should play well against Gore's stiffness, and the format will allow Bush to guide the conversation toward his comfort zone.
That leaves the candidates with one projected win apiece. And, as each camp is likely painfully aware, the final contest is generally perceived as a toss-up, dependent on anything from the mood of the moderator to the quality of the night's coffee. On October 17, the candidates will meet in St. Louis for a potentially contentious town-hall meeting, where audience members will pose questions to the candidates. It could go either way: If Gore has learned anything about warmth and accessibility from his year of campaigning, he may just confound us with some quick and witty banter. But Bush, whose recent and much-trumpeted turn to issue-heavy campaigning indicates a willingness to do a whole lot of homework, could just as easily pull off a charm offensive backed winningly with a surprising grasp of substance.
The final meeting will, of course, carry the most weight: A decisive win on the 17th will linger in the minds of voters for the remaining three weeks of campaigning just as a humiliating loss could signal the beginning of the end.