(5 of 5)
It was a style that would also put Gore at a disadvantage six years later, and Kerry's challenge, Richards predicts, will be to do what neither she nor Gore could: "Insist on some explanations and some details and not allow him to gloss over issues." But Cahill concedes that Kerry's chances--and those of the debate moderators--will be limited by the Bush campaign's insistence that follow-up questions and rebuttals be sharply restricted.
The biggest mistake any candidate can make is to think of these as debates at all. Reality TV is more like it. "People watch these things more like they are watching Friends than the way they watch the Harvard and Yale debate societies," says Chris Lehane, who was Gore's press secretary. "They're not watching to see who scores the points. They're watching to see who they connect with and feel comfortable with."
Every now and then, magic can happen. It wasn't until Ronald Reagan demolished Jimmy Carter's repeated critique of his position on Medicare with "There you go again" that many Americans began to get comfortable with the idea of Reagan in the Oval Office. But more often, what voters take away from the debates is confirmation of their misgivings about a candidate: Richard Nixon's inner darkness, Gerald Ford's cluelessness, George H.W. Bush's aloofness, Gore's changeability.
And the debate isn't over when the candidates have finished their closing statements. Just as important to their campaigns will be winning the post-debate effort to spin what actually happened. It wasn't until a day or two after the first debate in 2000 that the analysis turned to Gore's exaggerated claims and his patronizing sighs. But it so neatly fit with the existing narrative about Gore that it became more important than anything else that happened that night--particularly among the vast majority of Americans who had not watched the debate with their own eyes. A study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found nonviewers' opinions of Gore eroding as the coverage of his manner grew more negative. So for all the energy the campaigns put into preparing for every eventuality before the debates, the greatest debate may be the one that comes after they're over. --With reporting by Matthew Cooper with Bush, Perry Bacon Jr. with Kerry and Eric Roston with Edwards