Will We See Attack-Dog Al Again in St. Louis?

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Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush

Nine out of ten pundits agree: Bush walked away the winner Wednesday night.

Gore’s labored attempts to soft-sell his own intelligence backfired; he turned his back on obvious opportunities to attack Bush’s record on education, civil rights and health care, and his taciturnity didn’t even gain the veep any new votes; in fact, the kinder, gentler Gore left some supporters feeling oddly unfulfilled. Bush, on the other hand, maneuvered gracefully through the calm waters — taking full advantage of the informal setting and ultra-civilized atmosphere.

And voters (those who were caught by pollsters, anyway) were smitten with Bush: They thought Gore was more presidential and had a better understanding of the issues, but they liked Bush better. And If Bush is more likable even when he’s up against an emasculated Gore, and Gore takes a beating all around for running away with his tail between his legs, what exactly does that portend for next Tuesday’s final meeting in St. Louis?

Gore’s facing one hell of a conundrum: People don’t like the old, didactic Al Gore. They also, apparently, don’t respond well to his new, sensitive-guy incarnation. And to top it all off, nobody seems particularly pleased with all his changing personalities in the first place.

That doesn’t leave him with a whole lot of options for next week.

On the bright side, it’s not as if voters haven’t learned anything about Gore in the past few weeks: The vice president has already convinced everyone he knows what he’s talking about. Wednesday night he showed he’s also capable of sitting quietly and waiting his turn. Only now, with less than a month left before the elections, he must complete a truly Herculean task: He’s got to dig deep and unearth the long-buried "real" Al Gore — complete with whatever esoteric intellectual passions he’s suppressed from the public spotlight. Voters don’t want a chameleon. They want an honest person who’s not afraid of his own failings. And unfortunately for Gore, that could be more than he can handle.

Bush’s immediate assignment is far more obvious: Keep moving on the existing path, avoid controversy, hammer the "exaggeration" accusations and stoke the campaign’s existing energy levels. Spirits are high — and if the governor can head into next week’s debate with a stockpile of confidence (avoiding "cockiness," of course) and a lead in the polls, he could lock up the race right then and there.