The Other Fall TV Preview

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George Bush heads to his West Texas ranch tonight for the final stages of his debate preparation. His first turn behind the mock podium was last June at his family's estate on Walker's Point in Maine. He was joined there, as he will be this weekend, by Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who plays Al Gore. Jim Lehrer is played by media adviser Stuart Stevens, who has sharpened his skills by watching tapes of the PBS news anchor. The governor will practice in his "gym," a freestanding dwelling with bunk beds, exercise equipment and small kitchen. The room is so small, aides will sit on the floor. The podium will be exactly 48 inches, to match the one being used at the three debates, and tonight's practice will be held at 9 p.m. eastern to simulate the actual time next Tuesday's Boston debate will take place. There is some concern about the evening hour of the performance, since the governor usually hits the sack each night at 9:30.

In the walk-up to the debate, the campaign's communications director, Karen Hughes, was working furiously to lower expectations. "I don't think, if you asked him to list his best skills, debating would be on the top of the list," she said of Bush. And of Gore? "The best debater in the known universe," was how one reporter listening to her characterization put it.

A video clip of a Gore debate making its way through the e-mail system at Bush's Austin headquarters gives you a sense of how the team sizes up its opponent. "I have never said anything I knew to be untrue," says Gore as he defends himself against Bill Bradley's claim that he has distorted his health care plan. "I have never said anything that is untrue." The boast is a vexing reminder that the Bush campaign, like Bradley's, has been unable to make Gore's credibility an issue. But it is also a claim they hope to make Gore defend and the second half of the clip shows why it is so necessary for Bush to make Gore's credibility an issue. In the debate, Gore dismantles Bradley's health care plan in such a powerful way that the senator can barely respond. A broad attack on Gore's credibility helps water down whatever charges the Bush team expects him to make about the governor's Texas record or his plans for privatizing Social Security.

In addition to attacking Gore's credibility, Bush this week went after his opponent as a symbol of the Democratic party of the past. Whenever Al Gore has tried to distance himself from President Clinton, his opponent has been right there with a tube of epoxy. "We don't want another four more years of Clinton/Gore," George Bush says in a typical remark repeated at almost every stop. So it was a moment for a little head-scratching in Green Bay, Wisc., Thursday when the Texas governor said that he should be elected because Al Gore wasn't enough like Bill Clinton. "The vice president was seated right behind Bill Clinton at the State of the Union when the President declared: "The era of big government is over," said Bush recalling Clinton's famous 1996 pledge. "Apparently, the message never took."

Making the case for change in an era of prosperity requires a complex argument, and this may be one of Bush's most nuanced yet. In the wake of Tuesday's news about a record annual budget surplus, the governor pressed the case that Al Gore couldn't be trusted to keep the good times rolling. Arguing that Gore blows the bank with his spending promises, W. resurrected the same liberal ghosts that his father used so successfully to haunt Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race. Though he didn't use the word "liberal," Bush said the vice president represented "the old ways of tax and spend," and sketched a Gore world where a tax collector stooped under every stairway and the gargantuan federal government would awaken and slouch toward your hometown. "For him big government has never really been dead," said Bush. "It has simply been biding its time, waiting for its next chance.... If Gore gets elected, the era of big government being over is over. And so too, I fear, is our prosperity."

By leaping over the Clinton presidency of the last eight years and accepting his language about the era of big government, Bush seemed to be tacitly endorsing the Clinton reign. "My opponent has left the vital center of American politics," Bush said as if the current situation — against which he often rails — represented that vital center. So much — for the moment, anyway — for bashing the way things are done in Washington.

Standing in front of a backdrop of blue-uniformed workers Thursday at a food packaging plant, Bush delivered his speech and took questions in his shirtsleeves. It was chilly in Wisconsin but Bush was trying to look a little more informal and accessible. He used to gig Al Gore for fishing around too much in the wardrobe closet, but as he tweaked his own uniform he was also copying Gore in other ways, by showing himself to be a tireless advocate for the working man. Describing the tax advantages that his plan would bring to the Tank family sitting in the front row, Bush grew increasingly animated. "When you hear the talk about the rich and the powerful, I want you all to remember the Tanks," he said before announcing the roughly $1,800 more dollars the family would reap under his plan. "Now you tell me who stands on the side of the working families."