Bush vs. Gore: A Round-by-Round Analysis

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Al Gore and George W. Bush meet in the first presidential debate

ROUND 1: When the two of them walked out I thought: Could the focus groups really be saying that they demand a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie? For this TV viewer, Gore looked simultaneously meaner and more solid. He dissembled, I think, when he denied having questioned Dubya's experience. But he aced the prescription drug question and left W. mumbling about "Mediscare."

ROUND 2: Bush looks slightly awkward to me. He's flubbed a couple of lines and seemed oddly unprepared for the RU-486 question. Gore, although looking like he's made out of rawhide, is doing pretty well. His answers are more cogent. And what's the deal with W.'s makeup? I thought he was supposed to be Jack Kennedy to Gore's 1960 Nixon. It looks like it's the other way around. Bush, though, did well on energy. Nice use of local issues in coal states and Washington State.

ROUND 3: I think we've got one of those gaffes that people remember. Twenty-four years after Gerald Ford said the Russians didn't dominate Eastern Europe, George W. Bush just invited them back in to play a larger role. As Gore pointed out, the Russians tend to lean Slobo's way. The whole Bush emphasis on foreign policy has been that we coddled Yeltsin and the Russians. Now he's sent an engraved invitation to Moscow. Weird.

Just to go back to an earlier moment, how could Dubya blow the Internet joke line? That was a tough one to lose.

I thought W. did OK on the military power question, but invoking Schwarzkopf and Powell didn't help Dubya's old man. It won't eight years later.

OK, it's only been 45 minutes. Dubya still has a second half left to play....

ROUND 4: Bush wakes up! When it came to the tax cut question, W. was at his best — cogent, clear. His riff on Gore picking winners and losers and having to hire all kinds of new IRS agents — well, that was good stuff. But in the two-way shots, where Bush is waiting for Gore to finish his answer, he keeps sighing and smirking and looking around. Try the decaf! Still, this has been W.'s best moment.

Can I dis the sainted Jim Lehrer? Each question is an invitation to filibuster. All the questions are softballs that allow each candidate to go on autopilot. It's great that he's sticking to substance instead of tactics, but couldn't the questions have some focus? And he could ref a little better.

Also: What happened to personal references? Gore on Vietnam; Bush on how he and Laura, his wife, care about education — not much, interestingly, in an age when people seem to want more of the personal stuff.

ROUND 5: Bush did a lot better on that tax question and he did fine on the education stuff. But, jeez, he still seems off his game — not the charmer of Midland but the Boston Mangler. He had a nice riff complimenting James Lee Witt, Clinton's head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. It looked big, gracious. Gore, of course, like a machine calculating that he had to be nice, too, came back and complimented Bush's handling of Texas's fire woes. Then Gore had to take credit for making FEMA a better agency. Gore is just relentless.

Bush just not getting off the lines he needs. And what's with the sniffing? It's not Olympic gymnastics: Take a Sudafed! W. keeps sniffing during the off moments. It's weird. And the fuzzy math line is too vague, opaque. This is not the Philadelphia Bush of big heart and clear vision. There's none of his much-vaunted charm. There's none from Gore either but he's giving the impression of competence.

ROUND 6: Here in the last 15 minutes of the debate, I'm stuck by the different confidence levels of the two guys. Bush, who can be commanding on the stump, seems faltering, hesitant. Gore is brimming with confidence. Incredibly, Bush hasn't had Gore on the run once. Gore's relentless assaults have made a difference.

The other thing that strikes me is the way that Gore has beat up the guy without seeming to be too mean. He's able to drop little depth charges with lines like: "Let me explain to you...." He's able to get W. off stride without seeming to be the heavy.

There's one exception: Bush did nicely on the character issue, not seeming the least bit Starr-like. His tone of disappointment seemed like the most effective way to go. Gore's response felt too canned, as if he were prepared for Bush to launch a screed instead of a gentle rebuke. Gore coulda taken some good digs at Bush's Texas record but he riffed on campaign finance instead.

I'm writing this in the closing the moments of the debate. My guess is that post-debate polls will show Gore winning the debate 55-45. Bush needs to really study up before the next one.