For Bush and Gore, It's the Last-Chance Corral

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(L)ERIC GAY/AP (R)J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Texas governor George W. Bush (L) and Vice President Al Gore

As George W. Bush and Al Gore run through their final dress rehearsals for their final debate — perched on the edge of high stools, microphones pinned to their lapels — they're probably a little nervous. And with some reason: Bush shoulders newly heightened expectations, while Gore must very publicly resurrect a campaign that has been treading water over the past two weeks.

With just three weeks remaining until Election Day, Bush holds a slim but psychologically significant lead in national polls, and Gore's entourage is scrambling to make up the difference. They're hoping their chance may materialize during Tuesday night's debate at Washington University in St. Louis, when a town hall–style exchange will allow audience members to query the candidates directly — a format the vice president's camp hopes will favor their nominee's superior grasp of the issues.

Even given that apparent advantage, Gore faces an unenviable challenge; he's got to identify and act upon a heretofore undiscovered middle ground between the somewhat repellent know-it-all Al Gore and Al Gore, hesitant beta male.

The best way to do this, most analysts agree, is to persuade Tuesday night's crowd to warm to him while at the same time maintaining a presidential manner. And while Gore does not share his boss's superhuman ability to express empathy, he can, if pressed, maintain an interpersonal connection. And if he manages to balance a toned-down "I feel your pain" approach with a compelling command of specifics, the vice president could score a few points.

Meanwhile, he has to hone in on what are perceived to be Bush's weaknessness. To that end, Gore's surrogates have been attacking Bush's record in Texas with renewed vigor, concentrating particularly on the health care rankings Gore brought up briefly in their second debate at Wake Forest University. Tuesday, Gore will no doubt try to remind voters that a Bush presidency will probably look something like a Bush gubernatorial term — a route that provides Gore with lots of potentially damaging fodder on health care and the environment.

Across the aisle, Bush is flush with pundits' praise, and is reportedly feeling pretty darn good. That alone should give supporters a reason to worry — this is not the time for Bush's tendency toward overconfidence to rear its ugly head. By now, we know Bush can do personable, affable and even humorous; now he's got to maintain his cool, and convince voters he can, in fact, be presidential, as his surrogates have insisted time and again.

Tuesday night's format is something of an x-factor for Bush: He was comfortable with the behind-the-desk conversation of the Wake Forest debate. Will he feel similarly at home taking questions from an audience? He's also not carrying the advantage of the carefully lowered expectations that preceded him into the first two encounters. If he keeps his wits about him and nails a few specifics, he could win the day. But if he sinks into a verbal morass, as he's done consistently during off-the-cuff exchanges on the campaign trail, he might be in trouble.

There is one more wild card: Both camps are looking over their shoulders at this week's Middle East peace summit. If President Clinton comes home bearing good news, Gore will want to maneuver himself into the spotlight as a key member of the Clinton foreign relations team — while simultaneously distancing himself from the diplomatic failures associated with the renewed violence. Meanwhile, look for the governor to paint the clashes as a tragedy that might have been avoided by a more comprehensive and forward-thinking approach to foreign policy.