Here's How Bush Could Have Stolen the Night

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STEPHAN SAVOIA/POOL/AP

George W. Bush shakes hands with Al Gore at the start of the debate

The subject of "missed opportunities" has become one of George W. Bush's favorite lines of attack — a pithy way to hit a two-term incumbent veep when starts bragging about his approach to problems yet unsolved. But in a debate in which Bush mostly held up under fire from the heavily favored Gore, the Texas governor had a few missed opportunities of his own. Not flubs, not slip-ups — they're easy to find on both sides — but chances to turn Gore's eager aggressiveness against him. And maybe even win the thing.

The "Code Words"

In the middle of an exchange about abortion, the Supreme Court and how to read the constitution, Gore says that Bush uses "code words" like "strict contructionist" to mean that he will try to overturn Roe v. Wade with his judicial appointments. Bush has already said he does not have a litmus test for appointments.

JIM LEHRER (moderator): Is the vice president right? Is that a code word for overturning Roe v. Wade?

BUSH: Sounds like the vice president is not very right many times tonight. I've just told you the criteria in which I'll appoint judges. I've had a record of appointing judges in the state of Texas. That's what a governor gets to do. A governor gets to name Supreme Court judges, and I've given...

The hurried response not only opens with a joke only Bush seems to understand — leaving him smiling expectantly amid deafening silence — it goes nowhere and scores no points. A record of appointing judges?

NEXT TIME, TRY: "The vice president may deal in code words and spin, but that's not my game. I said there would be no litmus test, and that's what I meant." Quick, clean and folksy-aggressive. And it doesn't leave the viewer wondering whether Bush really does use code words for the religious right (which, of course, he does).

The Russians and Milosevic

For a guy who talks tough on the Russians when it comes to nuclear defense, Bush may have mused about them a little too glowingly, if somewhat validly. "This will be an interesting moment for the Russians to step and lead as well, be a wonderful time for the — for the Russians to step into the Balkans and convince Mr. Milosevic it's in his best interest and his country's best interest to leave office. The Russians have got a lot of sway in that part of the world, and we'd like to see them use that sway to encourage democracy to take hold."

Which left Gore an opening: "But being as they have not yet been willing to recognize Kostunica as the lawful winner of the election, I'm not sure that it's right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate this dispute there, because we might not like the result that comes out of that."

BUSH: Well, obviously we wouldn't use the Russians if they didn't agree with our answer, Mr. Vice President.

The defensive answer leaves Gore another retort — "Well, they don't" — that leaves Bush looking like he hasn't been reading the papers. The Russians have in fact gone with a fuzzy "it's up to the Serbs" approach," which is arguably somewhere in between. But the lasting impression is of Bush taking the hit in silence because he's not quite sure of the details.

NEXT TIME, TRY: "Well, that's what diplomacy is all about, isn't it — finding a way to work with them on this." Or even, with a little grin, "Maybe they need some convincing." Foreign policy is full of gray areas and short on definite answers; Bush must demonstrate he understands this, and isn't afraid of it. All Bush really needs is to show a little confidence. (And next time, go ahead — say Putin's name. Or correct Gore when he endlessly mispronounces Kostunica's. People are watching for this, and they can smell fear.)

The Experience Issue

This happened right away, and was Bush's first missed chance. He had Gore — with Jim Lehrer obsessively after him, for some reason — denying that he'd ever questioned Bush's qualifications to be president. When it finally came around to Bush, he quickly took the high road — "Yes, I take him for his word" — before launching into a decent but totally unnecessary defense of his résumé, which of course neither Gore nor Lehrer had even asked for. Bush tried all night to attack Gore's character; why not do it now, when he's got Gore dead to rights and Lehrer on his side?

NEXT TIME, TRY: "Well, Mr. Vice President, you have questioned my qualifications before. But I'm glad to hear your doubts have been cleared up." Then the quick segue about why being a governor with a record of bipartisanship would make him a good president. Bush had started very strong, smoother than Gore, and something witty here — admittedly, Bush is batting only about .500 on jokes, but he might have pulled it off — could have planted the character seed and set a very Bush-friendly tone for the rest of the night.