What Al and Dubya Need to Do in Debate #2

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STAN HONDA/AFP, AL BEHRMAN/AP

George W. Bush and Al Gore in their first presidential debate

Chastened by their running mates’ bang-up performance last Thursday, Al Gore and George W. Bush are reportedly preparing for a civilized and substantive exchange Wednesday night in Winston-Salem. TIME.com's Jessica Reaves and Frank Pellegrini assess the task in front of each candidate...

AL GORE

It’s official: The voting public is smitten with Cheney and Lieberman. And short of flipping the tickets, there’s only one thing George W. Bush and Al Gore can do to drag the spotlight back into their corner: Act like grown-ups. That means no name-calling, no personal attacks, no sniffling or sighing. It means sticking to the issues.

For Gore, this presents a peculiar challenge. As class know-it-all, the vice president has an iron grip on the technicalities of almost any topic, from defense spending to tax breaks to social security. He can rattle off a dizzying steam of numbers, talking circles around his opponent. So what’s keeping Gore from true grown-up status? He just can’t seem to keep the condescending grin off his face.

Over at the other podium, Bush tends to trip on specifics, but he’s got a congenial way of doing it. He’s clumsy, but endearing; in other words, he’s precisely the opposite of Al Gore. And if you believe the recent polls, voters are swinging towards Bush — who slogged through last week’s debate without embarrassing himself — at a rate not seen since the GOP converged on Philadelphia.

To make Wednesday night’s sit-down debate work for him, Gore’s got to address the cosmetic along with the nuts and bolts. He’s undoubtedly tired of hearing it, but he’s got to loosen up. Robots do not win elections (remember Bob Dole). Try a real smile, or a polite joke. On the policy front, he’s reportedly prepping to push ever-popular proposals like universal preschool, children’s health insurance and Medicare prescription drug coverage. Harmless old chestnuts — unless Gore wanders off into the land of sentimental embellishment, or hunkers down into super-bureaucrat mode. Either mistake, spun confidently by Bush surrogates, could easily prove fatal.

But despite the current grim news from the polls, Gore’s hardly a lost cause: The round-table environment, once thought to favor Bush, could actually work in Gore’s favor Wednesday night. With both Bush and moderator Jim Lehrer sitting just a few feet away, Gore may be less inclined to project his voice quite so stentoriously; and he may also be spared the makeup artist’s brutal advances. In other words, he could potentially achieve the improbable: Looking natural on camera.

Both candidates have an interest in keeping Wednesday night’s debate as clean as possible; the public has repeatedly expressed disgust over dirty campaign tactics. But while Gore is studiously keeping his own hands scrubbed, his surrogates are lining up to take over the next 48 hours of mudslinging. Pre- and post-debate, Democrats will hammer Bush’s record on environmental issues, hate-crimes legislation and Medicaid, attempting to poke holes in the governor’s various claims.

In the meantime, all Gore has to do is (gently) suggest his superior grasp of the issues, tout his legislative experience — and keep the sighing to a minimum.

GEORGE W. BUSH

The bar has been raised for George W. Bush.

From the debate last Tuesday, we know that Bush is not a drooling idiot (and that his campaign deserves medals for getting expectations as low as they were). From the debate last Thursday — thanks, Dick Cheney — we know that Bush's philosophy for the presidency can be explained in rational, civilized, intelligent terms.

But we still don't know if Bush can do that. Wednesday's debate will be a sit-down in the style of the vice-presidential affair. Jim Lehrer will be moderating. And those expectations are sneaking up fast; the standard line about the format in debate-previews is "thought to favor Bush's easygoing, conversational style." In fact, being chained to the table may be just what Al Gore needs to keep his inner attack geek — the sighing, the time-hogging, the hip-swaggering — in check.

The problem for Bush will be if his (nationally televised) conversational style includes the same slew of botched segues, malapropisms, and mistimed witticisms to be found in his oratorical one. Voters will be listening for them; the Gore camp has made sure of that this week. Bush has been practicing his Balkanese with Condy Rice, but with so many words in the English language — and so many people eagerly waiting for a slipup — one or two are bound to happen.

Which brings us to what this debate is supposedly going to be about, according to both camps: bashing the other guy, civilly. There will of course be the continuing themes of the surplus, tax cuts, Medicare et al (and the Balkan lecture Gore is surely going to insist on conducting in front of his rival), but for this round the word is that Gore will go after Bush's Texas record (we may even hear about gun control) and hope the governor sounds stupid defending himself.

If he's deft enough, though, Bush will have the opportunity to turn that record to his advantage — an affable, unflustered "we've still got a long way to go, but I'm proud of how far we've come" should do the trick. But is he deft enough? Can he turn the conversation to his strengths, and make them sound like strengths? If he can sit down and elucidate his positions anywhere near as well as Dick Cheney did Thursday — "presidential," in this format, will mean "thoughtful" — he'll have hit the mark.

The real danger for Bush may be conservatives' growing confidence, fed by recent polls that show the Republican back in front, that Bush can win this election on the "serial exaggerator" theme. It's a long shot. To win over the undecideds, Bush has to make them want to take a chance on him by playing incumbent ball and staying with Gore on the issues. Joe Lieberman has already done his job; he taught Gore how to be human again. If Dick Cheney can teach Bush how to debate Republicanism like a reasonable, intelligent public servant — and let voters spot Gore's more troubling characteristics for themselves — he'll have been a very smart choice indeed.

But if we hear "fuzzy math" one more time without the numbers to back it up, that post-bar-clearing bounce won't last any longer than it did in August.