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

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ED REINKE/AP

Al Gore listens to George W. Bush during their third debate

ROUND 1: The first question — vilifying HMOs — seems perfect for Gore. And he does a nice job clarifying the issue and then offering a clear answer. He disagrees with Bush in a nice way and does well. Bush, though, does a good job of making it seem as though he supports an equally expansive patient's bill of rights. (He doesn't.) And he's clearly got the smirk under control. No laughing about frying prisoners this time. It's mellow Bush.

OK, I'm gonna rant about Lehrer and these debates. (For those of you who missed my commentaries in the other debates, I've found myself yelling at the TV.) The commission should have included Nader and Buchanan in at least one debate. Why? Buchanan's getting $12M in taxpayer monies. We shoulda gotten a chance to see what we bought. Nader's near 5 percent is big enough to merit a place on the stage. Alright, I'm done now. As for Lehrer, his cross-examination ain't doing much to illuminate the differences.

Gore's ranting on Dingell-Norwood needs to come to a point; otherwise he sounds like he's reading from the pages of Congressional Quarterly.

ROUND 2: Al comes alive! Gore finally showing some energy and a decent median between snoozing and being a snot. His effort to go to specifics will, I think, play pretty well.

I'm also wondering: Are these people really undecided? In 1992, GOPers thought a lot of the audience that mauled Bush Sr. were really Democrats. This time, the questions sound like they're from a Democratic focus group.

Bush's great strength in the debates has been his ability to push off from the specific to the general. Here, he takes the specific of health insurance and makes larger points about trusting people instead of government. He doesn't get mired in the weeds.

The parental involvement question gave Bush another good opportunity to go from the specific to the general. He gets to make his specific points about, say, his liability protection for teachers but he makes the larger point about "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Gore's comeback is specific, good. But he needs to answer the parental involvement question more directly and, more important, find a way to make a larger point. He sounds too much like he's offering a list of promises. The voucher point, though, is a good one for Gore. The political and journalistic elites are sympathetic to vouchers but Gore knows well that they're not popular nationwide. That's why the proposition favoring vouchers in California is going down.

Bush's comeback is energetic, but Gore's counterrebuttal is winning the dial groups, I suspect.

ROUND 3: Finally, Gore is defending the past eight years. Incredibly, in all the debating to this point, Gore has inexplicably avoided touting the achievements of the last eight years — low unemployment, a high stock market, lower welfare rolls. His psychological need to distance himself from Clinton has kept Gore from taking any credit for what has been accomplished. Meanwhile, he's been tarred with all that's wrong. Now, Gore seems ready to do the obvious: Run on his record.

But he still has a hard time making the case succinctly. At the end of the last colloquy he kept getting drawn into cul-de-sacs of side issues — does his plan leave out 50 million Americans or not. The best thing he could say is something simpler: Then and now. Then, unemployment was high and so were deficits. Now it's not. Leave aside the question of whether the Clinton administration deserves credit or not. This is his strongest argument for being elected. He can either make it or not. So far, he's finally starting to.

ROUND 4: Confucius say: "We must be strong but we must know the mission." Call me kooky, but I find Bush's answers on foreign policy to be weirdly like a Chinese fortune cookie. I thought he was much better in the second debate on world affairs.

By the way, am I not right that the questions are really liberal? Except for the military-stretched-thin question they're all pretty lib.

That's true of the gun control question, too. Now, I wonder, sitting on the edge of my bed, will Gore wallop Bush on Texas's concealed weapons law? The swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin are pretty pro-gun in their cultures. But they don't have anything like Texas's take-a-gun-to-church concealed weapons law that Bush signed. It's a winner but NOOOOOOOOOOOO... Gore blows it off to go back and talk about his signature, reinventing government. D'oh! I think Gore's too freaked by the gun owners in the battleground states to get tough on this. It's a mistake. For whatever gun owners he might offend — and I don't think it would be that many — he'd undercut Bush on "compassion" and look tougher. This was a big omission for Gore.

And well past the halfway point p.m. he's dropped the build-on-the-prosperity theme that he flicked at earlier. He's got a laundry list, not a vision. For a year and a half I've put out lots of $1 bets that Gore would win. The economy, the issues — they all seemed to spell Gore. That's why the academic models of political scientists have all predicted Gore. Easily. Now, more than ever, I've got my doubts that he can win. By abandoning the defense of the last eight years, he's left with nothing but its burdens. But, hey, ask me in an hour.

ROUND 5: Gore did OK on the campaign finance question and the one about kids being exposed to sex and violence. (Why didn't W. praise Tipper? It woulda been a home run and preempted Al.) His praise of McCain was a good riff. And so was Bush's riff about more civility on Washington. The ideal candidate would have found a way to fuse both messages.

Bush did well on the affirmative action question, I thought. And Gore's response was OK. Clinton woulda blown them both out of the water with a big riff on bringing people together. It might have all been pablum but he would have done it better.

ROUND 6: Were you slightly nauseated by the panderfest when the woman asked what she'd get from the candidates' plans? I don't want to make Clinton sound iconic here, but he would have linked specifics to a larger theme — opportunity and responsibility. (Given his behavior, it's pretty absurd, but still he would have found a more articulate way to make his point than Gore did by rattling off tax benefits and then Bush did by rambling on about peace.)

I liked the death penalty question. Am I the only one who thought Bush was trying really hard to look serious? The questioner was right: He was kind of animated when he talked about it in the last debate. And if you remember back to the primaries he was positively giddy at times. Interestingly, the swing states of the Midwest are basically anti–death penalty. Michigan, for instance, doesn't have the DP and GOP governor John Engler opposes it. So does Minnesota's Jesse Ventura. I don't think hang-'em-high helps Bush any.

OK, Gore finally comes back to touting the economy when he gets asked about keeping promises. And he does a nice pivot on Bush about breaking promises.

But, hey, Bush is very, very smart to keep coming back to ending the partisanship in Washington. It's a good riff.

So, bottom line? Gore did much better this time out. I bet the snap polls show him winning. But it wasn't quite what he needed, I think. He needs to take the last three weeks and hammer home the prosperity and make the message: Don't go back. For Bush? Keep doing what you're doing. People think you're a moderate, centrist leader and a decent guy. That's a winning combination.

Closing statements? Bush's finish was the better, I think. More vision, more sweep. Gore's I'm-really-honest riff underscored his problem — too much distancing from Clinton.