The Beantown Bout Is Close Enough for Bush

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

After 90 minutes of presidential debate that ranged across nearly every imaginable issue, called at least a dozen Real Americans by their first names, veered persistently into stump-speech boilerplate, and strained and strained at being interesting political television but never quite got there, Al Gore and George W. Bush are more deadlocked than ever.

This was supposed to be the close-to-the-vest debate, the stiff, podium-chained debate in which candidates stuck close to their stump speeches and took no chances with attacks. It wasn't exactly that -- in fact, it wasn't long before a passive Jim Lehrer let all those meticulously negotiated time constraints go right out the window.

And it was the famously sharp-fanged Gore that bared his teeth the most, having apparently decided beforehand on Bush's big weak spot: his tax cut and how much of the surplus Bush was handing to "the wealthiest one percent." (About $600 billion that Gore wants to spread around instead, to Medicare, education, paying down the debt. Wealthiest one percent. Medicare, education, paying down the debt. Repeat as necessary, and Gore did.) SEE IT: slow modem | fast modem | broadband

But with Gore eagerly unspooling numbers, sighing during Bush's answers and constantly champing at Jim Lehrer's moderatorial bit, Bush held up. He swung back at the "pick-and-chooser" Gore's targeted tax cuts, and kept turning Gore's charges to the who-gets-the-surplus-money divide between him (hardworking taxpayers) and Gore (government, of course). And he came up with a handy Reaganesque response for whenever Gore puffed up the Adminstration's plans for any unsolved problem: "Why haven't you done it the last seven years?" If there was a stature gap between Gore and Bush, Bush closed it some on Tuesday by staying calm and holding his own in the face of an Al Gore who for most of the no-commercial-breaks affair could hardly contain himself. SEE IT: slow modem | fast modem | broadband

Certainly if the just-tuning-in, undecided voter were tuning in for issues, Round 1 could not have disappointed. On the surplus (big tax cut or small tax cuts), Social Security (privatize some or not), energy policy (drill Alaska or not to drill Alaska), and anything else one might have been listening for, the differences were clear and usually cheerfully admitted to.

But were there any wounds opened? Maybe. Bush, in the middle of unrewarding digression into matters Balkan, started talking in rather warm terms about the Russians and their willingness to help pry Slobodan Milosevic out of the president's chair. Gore reminded Bush that the Russians haven't been much help in that regard. Bush: "Obviously we wouldn't ask the Russians if they didn't agree with our answer, Mr. Vice President," Gore: "But they don't." Was it Gerald Ford's liberation of Poland? Hardly. But in the debate's one foray into foreign-policy specifics, Bush sounded like he wasn't up on the facts. It will make the papers. SEE IT: slow modem | fast modem | broadband

As for Gore, the usual style points. He was overeager, pushy about getting in the last word, and definitely out-smirked the Texas governor. But he also came away, somehow, sounding like the man whose numbers just might be believed; that Bush's might just be the "fuzzy math" that Bush complained about. That should be an easy one for a wonk like Gore — it's not, because of Gore's troubled history with the truth — but Bush still lacks the veep's visible confidence when it comes to quoting the fine print.

The bar was pretty low, and Bush cleared it by plenty. He seemed to run out of gas in the last half hour as Gore calmed down, and seemed to get his foot tangled in the rhetorical garden hose from time to time. Like his father, he has spotty sense of timing — preprogammed phrases tend to pop up at unexpected times — and unlike his father, he still needs work on his foreign policy if he's to avoid a daily beating in the New York Times. But after this, the first of the last three Possible Turning Points of this airtight race, the two men seemed eminently, well, comparable. Few supporters seem likely to be disappointed, and few minds seem likely to be changed. Which was all George W. Bush was really going for.