And the differences between them have never seemed more stark: Tuesday night's debate was, ultimately, a paean to days gone by, when the GOP actually kept out of people's personal lives and the Democrats doled out federal funding without a second thought. St. Louis inspired Bush and Gore to abandon the middle ground altogether. Bush wants a teensy, tiny federal government, where meetings are short and there's plenty of time for jogging. Gore envisions federal tentacles creeping into every last aspect of public life, including education, health care and gun control.
If America's legendary undecided voters were watching Tuesday night, this yawning chasm should help sway a few votes; maybe a couple of them actually made up their minds last night. (At this point, of course, the "undecideds" have gotten more attention from the national media than the candidates themselves, and none of them seem particularly interested in abandoning the limelight or taking a moment away from their CNN/NBC/ABC interviews to make a decision).
The bottom line: There are plenty of votes up for grabs out there. And if Gore wants to pick up a few extra ballots, he's got to walk the straight and narrow, studiously avoiding charges of exaggeration. He needs to woo the 5 percent of Americans who plan to vote for Ralph Nader a 5 percent that could definitively tip the election Gore's way. Heading into the homestretch, the vice president can also take a calculated risk: He can capitalize on Bush's misstatements regarding bills on hate crimes and health care in Texas, as long as he's willing to bet voters will find Bush's fibs more repellent than his own. Watch for Gore to press a lot of flesh in the coming days, as he hits the road with a vengeance.
Bush will probably take a more careful approach: The debates were a success for the Bush camp inasmuch as the governor didn't make any serious mistakes. There were no disastrous gaffes. And everyone involved in the campaign wants to keep it that way. Look for Bush to hammer away on smaller government, laissez-faire policies and personal accountability. The key for Bush? Avoiding unscripted moments: The Bush entourage will play these last weeks very close to the vest, answering only pre-approved questions and carefully controlling their candidate's exposure.