How the Bushies Crowned Their Guy as Debate King

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A mixture of relief and almost giddy disbelief sums up the mood on the Bush campaign plane Wednesday. Going into the three-week debate season, Bush's advisers had been hoping merely to survive. In their own minds, at least, they were facing the most celebrated debater of his generation, a professional who had decimated Ross Perot, humiliated Jack Kemp and skewered Bill Bradley. The Bush team worked that angle hard, raising expectations for the vice president and lowering them for the governor. In selling the spin, it helped that they also believed it. But after the first two debates with Al Gore, George W. Bush had not only held his own; he had leapfrogged his rival in the polls. And while Gore may have put in his strongest performance in last night's third debate, Bush's advisers are taking comfort in the fact that their man did not do himself any damage. "We survived," said one Bush aide in between celebratory cocktails in the bar of the Bush hotel in St. Louis. "And tonight, I think that's all we had to do."

Before leaving town Wednesday morning, Bush was presented with a mock boxing title belt by his advance team. It was a large affair with blue leather and a gold buckle inscribed "Presidential Debate Champion 2000," and Bush held it above his head and said with a laugh, "From an objective group of people."

Bush hasn't visited the back of his plane to speak with the traveling press corps in a month — a result of his unwillingness to be on the record during such encounters and the press corps' resistance to allowing him to speak off the record. But Wednesday morning, he addressed us on the PA system before takeoff. "Attention, please. Attention, please," Bush said. "This is your captain. I want to make sure all journalists [are] on board. After all, we do not want to forget any journalists."

This was supposed to be a joke, in reference to Bush's retort to Gore during the debate to "forget the journalists" and what they say about his facts and figures. But the joke fell flat, so Bush pressed on. "For all journalists on board, please raise your hand," he said. "For those of you missing, will you please raise your hands." Again, his timing off, he was met with a puzzled silence. "At any rate," Bush continued, "[there is] less than three weeks to go. I'm looking forward to it. I hope you are, too. May your stories be objective."

If the governor's attempt at humor fell flat, that didn't deter Karen Hughes, Bush's chief spokesman. She came back during the flight to Wisconsin and offered a sample of the jokes Bush might deliver during his appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman" Thursday in New York. For Bush's "Top 10 Reasons Why I Won the Debate," Karen had a handful of ideas: "Number 10: The mikes were off. Number 9: There are laws against stalking. Number 8: I finally figured out the difference between East Timorians and West Texians. And Number 1: Strategery." That's right: "strategery". (For those who missed it, "strategery" — pronounced "stra-tee-jury" — is the word "Bush" used in recent "Saturday Night Live" skit.)