Spirited (but Familiar) in St. Louis

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George W. Bush looks on as Al Gore makes a point during their debate

Two hundred and seventy commercial-free debate minutes into this election of, by and for the undecideds, the oscillations of personality are tightening up. The third, "town hall" installment of the 2000 presidential debates was a familiar affair — despite that fact that Al Gore and George W. Bush got to talk directly with (OK, at) the Real Americans they've been talking so much about lately. After one debate with podiums, one with chairs, and one with a big red stage upon which to strut and fret, it seems clear now that the changeability of these two candidates has been greatly exaggerated.

And even the most uncommitted of uncommitteds should probably know by now what their choices are.

First of all, that Beta-male Al Gore was just another minor aberration. The vice president seems to have revived the Jim Lehrer–jumping, time-hogging, smarty-pants Alpha-hood that he applied to Wooden Al at the Los Angeles convention: Here's what I want to do — exactlywhat I want to do. Is it so bad that I'm positively chewing my leg off to get a chance to do it?

Second of all, George Bush isn't getting any smarter. Still, there were no major flubs — though maybe tackling "peroration" (it came out "piroation") was a mistake — and after two earlier faceoffs that were healthy for the Texas governor's stature, he probably didn't disappoint anyone whose expectations had been raised.

The issues — well, the issues may be starting to run together a little. Having chosen the questions from the audience of avowedly uncommitted St. Louisians, moderator Jim Lehrer covered perhaps the first two thirds of the familiar list: health care, education, guns, farms, affirmative action and just a dollop of the foreign and military matters that the second debate had featured so prominently.

But this was not much of an issues debate. Perhaps it was the questions, which were not the usual tee-ups — but neither candidate let that stop him from responding with boilerplate. Maybe it's just that we've heard it before, but the romp through the fine print with which Al Gore redecorated an ailing campaign in August just doesn't seem as fresh as it once did.

The detail race is one that Bush still mostly declines to run, and he's gotten good at making that sound like a good thing. Gore, with personality against him from the start, has always run a full-disclosure campaign — I support this bill and that proposal and this plan and that initiative. When Bush is confronted with specifics, he spins the discussion forward, to the perhaps more realistic world of Washington, where nothing gets passed without five amendments and a rider, and specific promises never come more than vaguely true. I'll work it out, Bush says — trust me, I'm the man for the job.

Gore, meanwhile, is the comprehensive policy package for the job. Was that enough Tuesday to take the momentum back in a race that is statistically even but slightly Bush's, at least for now? That four-point lead Bush took to St. Louis had to be taken back, and Gore knew it. He came out in full-on people mode, tossing the audience a "how are you all" on the way in and breaking the don't-ask-the-questioner-questions-rule with a Clintonesque "what grade do you teach?" (He actually defused the breach rather charmingly, reading the guy's lips and repeating "high school" like a scamp.)

The format suited Gore; his footwork, carriage and impressively human gesticulations left Bush looking a little wan and hunched, and he scored a layup by explaining Bush's education policy for him. But the vice president never stole the show. Bush, after a nervous beginning in which he managed to botch his Carnahan-condolence line (though at least it was brief — Gore's sounded like an Oscar speech), settled down. He boiled down the tax cut/estate tax question resoundingly ("It's a fairness issue. It's an issue of principle, not politics") and delivered suitably grave response to the death penalty question that Gore, surprisingly, left unchallenged. He even had a line for campaign finance reform and citizen disillusionment: "We need somebody in office who will tell the truth. It's the best way to get people back into the system."

And Bush, in trying to sell voters philosophies that Newt Gingrich never could, seems to have found a curiously effective way to defuse questions that he's not deep enough for the job: promise the people a government, indeed a presidency, small enough for him to run. Scary ideas, like school vouchers? Leave 'em up to the states. "I'd worry about federalizing education if I were you." Extra money coming in? Don't look at me — you folks take it back. Afraid I'm not up on my specifics? Never mind that — me and Congress'll work it out. "I'll have an administration that'll make you proud." (And he's still the funny one: "For those of you for me, thanks for your help," Bush said in his closing statement. "For those of you for my opponent, please only vote once.")

As doggedly as he's been laying out the issues, line by line and policy promise by policy promise, Al Gore must be wondering why there are still undecideds in this election at all. That there apparently are should worry him, because he has no surprises left and has left nothing in doubt. The issues polls still favor him; the candidate polls no longer do. Could it be that voters wonder if in gridlocked Washington, a man with fewer promises might just have a better chance of delivering?