Debate Mind Games

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Al Gore and George W. Bush warm up for next week's debate

Of all the information that Al Gore's team has collected in preparing for its candidate's first face-to-face confrontation with George W. Bush next week, none has been more sobering than the account of the last person who made the mistake of underestimating Bush's talents as a debater. Back when he was running for Texas governor in 1994, the sharp and salty incumbent Ann Richards thought she had scored a knockout in their only debate; her giddy campaign staff, taking score in the audience of a Dallas hotel ballroom, figured she had made 10 good points to his every one. "I thought I'd kicked his [rhymes with crabgrass]. Everyone around me thought I'd kicked his [rhymes with striped bass]," Richards told a Gore strategist recently. But the voters were keeping a tally sheet of their own, Richards recalled, and "it turned out he had kicked my [rhymes with bus pass]."

Wanna make George W. Bush smirk? Tell him he's going to get pasted in the presidential debates. Compared with the confident front-runner who resisted rote practice sessions before all those primary debates last winter, Bush, now the self-declared underdog, has been drilling like an Olympic athlete for the three debates he faces on Oct. 3, 11 and 17. He has been practicing since May at his ranch, at the governor's mansion and at other locations in Austin. Some sessions have included a table and podium and an Al Gore, played by New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg. A dress rehearsal will be held one night at nine to help the notoriously early riser adjust to the contest's kickoff time, which falls only half an hour before he usually turns in.

Though Gore did not hold his first real rehearsal until last Thursday, he started batting possible questions and answers back and forth with advisers weeks ago, and will hunker down by this weekend at a practice site near Boston, the location of debate No. 1. Gore himself has benefited from low expectations in the past, but now is regarded as one of the most effective debaters on the political scene. That could be why he downplays the intensity of his own preparation, telling reporters, "We'll just squeeze in a little time here and there. Probably a day or two before the first debate, I'll take more time off to get ready." But such insouciance is hard to believe in a politician so meticulous that he demanded the practice room for his 1996 debate with Jack Kemp be cooled to the temperature of the hall and told aides to be sure to calculate for the warming effect of the audience.

This time, neither candidate can afford to take anything — not even the thermostat — for granted. When the two men lean into that awkward handshake next Tuesday in Boston, they will be looking at one of their last chances to define for undecided Americans what is at stake in November. The race is dead even, and more voters will be taking a common impression from the three debates than at any other time during the election.

While Bush had initially proposed that two of the debates should take place on talk shows rather than in the more traditional formats he eventually agreed to, they will still provide the candidates plenty of opportunity to mix it up. Next week, for instance, each question will be followed by three answers from each side, going back and forth, with one of the exchanges lasting six minutes. That's an eternity by presidential-debate standards. The candidates will be situated more informally, seated at a table for their meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11, and finally, will take questions from the audience at a town-hall setting in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 17. "Bush wanted a lot more dialogue in the debates, and he got it," says Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley, who negotiated the arrangement for the vice president's side.

What impresses Gore's strategists as they pore over videos of Bush's previous debates is the governor's discipline — his ability to stay focused on his message and shrug off an opponent's barbs. But when he needs to, they say, Bush has shown himself capable of going on the attack. "Which George Bush is going to show up — the one who stayed on the high road with Ann Richards, or the one who was really low-road with John McCain?" says strategist Paul Begala, who is playing Bush in Gore's practice sessions. "I don't have a good guide, because you know what? He won each way."

For his part, Gore expects to score his biggest points when he presses Bush to delve into the fine print of his own proposals — like how he plans to pay the estimated $1 trillion it will cost to reshape Social Security into a system where Americans can invest part of their premiums. Gore's team believes Bush has the rigor and tight message to get through the first two answers, but that his riff will begin to sound thin in the back and forth. Here too they hope to get to what they see as the greatest point of their endeavor: raising doubts about whether Bush has the weight for the job.

"It's not that he doesn't have an answer," one Gore adviser says. "It's that the answers are not good for him." Team Bush insists its man is just as eager to attack the Clinton-Gore record. He will push the argument that the administration has presided over an "education recession," and he will try to pick apart the details of Gore's prescription-drug plan in an attempt to show it is as onerous as Hillary Clinton's failed health-care reform. The Bush people are also girding to defend their turf. "He will misrepresent the governor's record in Texas and his proposals for the nation," says Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "But we look forward to explaining the truth." By the time they are finished with three debates, the two candidates will probably have explored every major policy on the table. "But you've got to do it in a gentle way," cautions one Gore strategist. "Swing voters like a reasonable, fact-based argument."

Which may be why some in Gore's camp are posing like matadors, waving their red capes in hopes of provoking the other side to snort and charge. "If you are five points down with five weeks to go, you have to be aggressive," says one, sounding more hopeful than anxious. But Bush is more likely to try a balanced approach, playing the optimistic, sunny candidate who played to such raves on "Regis" and "Oprah" this week while also working hard to raise doubts about Gore's credibility. Last week, under the cover of a heralded shift to policy, Bush and his aides were trying to steal the sting from the vice president's assaults by raising doubts about anything he said: hammering on Gore's trip to Hollywood to raise money from a culture he was simultaneously upbraiding, mocking a childhood memory he claimed (Gore later said jokingly) to have had of song lyrics written when he was actually 27, and questioning the accuracy of a story he told of his mother-in-law's prescription drugs' costing more than his dog's. Here's one sentiment that is likely to come up in some fashion next week: "The idea that he would make up facts about a family member confirms what I have said in the past," Bush told Reuters. "That he'll say anything to be the president."

As each side worked on its game plan, Gore dropped in last Friday at a Pittsburgh Steelers practice, where the team was preparing for its confrontation with the Tennessee Titans. Asked later whether he had seen any moves that might come in handy against Bush, the vice president paused a minute and chose his words: "Maybe a down-and-out pattern." That's one play both sides had better expect.

With reporting by Jay Carney with Bush and Tamala M. Edwards with Gore