Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2000

Debates, like race, are a tossup

October 1, 2000


— The only scorecard that counts for Tuesday night's first presidential debate of 2000 is the public reaction. But in thinking about my own scorecard, I've jotted down five tests for Vice President Gore and five others for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Judging Gore, I will mark how well he:

"The great thing about these debates is that both candidates have ways they can win."

(1) Demolishes the Bush tax cut proposal. It is the centerpiece of the Republican's economic plan and perhaps the most vulnerable plank in his platform. Polls consistently show voters put a higher priority on paying down the national debt. And Gore can plausibly argue that the scale of that tax plan could prevent Bush from delivering on his promises to protect Social Security and Medicare and improve the schools. Bush's rebuttals require rapid mental math, not his strong suit.

(2) Finds gaps in Bush's Texas record that further undermine the credibility of his current campaign promises. Whether it is the veto of the first patients' rights bill passed by the Legislature or the sad condition of Texas' public health programs, Gore has an opportunity to damage Bush's claim to being a "compassionate conservative."

(3) Handles the "three C's" of Clinton, Court and Congress. To mobilize core Democrats, Gore must defend President Clinton's record against any Bush attacks, raise the specter of a Republican Congress seeing every one of the bills Clinton has stopped with his vetoes being signed into law and, finally, the Supreme Court being remade by a president who has said his ideal Justice is Antonin Scalia.

(4) Speaks at the steady pace and with the natural grace he exhibited in his acceptance speech and not in the tedious, pedantic fashion that caused one Iowa woman in a Washington Post focus group watching the 1996 vice presidential debate to remark, "He talks to us as if he thinks English is our second language." If Gore appears to be patronizing Bush and the TV audience, he is in trouble.

(5) Finds a way to rattle Bush. In his Atlantic magazine article on the evolution of Gore's debating style, James Fallows shows how Gore has mastered the art of disconcerting his opponents. Bush will be on guard for the tactic, but the governor has one obvious vulnerability: He flares up when his father is criticized. If Gore finds an opening to disparage the record of the last Bush administration, watch out.

Now, for the Bush scorecard. I will watch how well he:

(1) Persists in pushing his education record and proposals for reform of the schools. It's his best weapon to win wavering women and it is a genuine passion of his, backed by solid accomplishments in Texas and expressed in a bold, consistent set of ideas. More than any other issue, it's education that makes Bush "a different kind of Republican" and one that ticket-splitting parents can take to their hearts.

(2) Dramatizes his charge that Gore will "say or do anything to win the White House" with specific instances of flip-flops and borderline ethics violations. Bush has a big catalogue to draw on, if he can keep all the details straight in his mind and not open the door for a quick Gore rebuttal.

(3) Turns Gore's attacks on Republicans into an indictment of the vice president's penchant for partisanship. The public has had it with stalemate in Washington; Bush has to make independents believe Gore will perpetuate it, while he (Bush) has a chance to break the gridlock.

(4) Watches his grammar and pronunciation. Bush makes no more verbal mistakes than most of us do, but the press is on alert for gaffes and those sound bites will be shown over and over if they occur.

(5) Lets his sense of humor show. Nothing conveys self-confidence and composure important presidential qualities better than an ability to share a laugh, especially if the opponent is lacking in the light touch. When we vote for a president, we are deciding not just whose finger will be on the nuclear button but who we want televised into our homes for the next four years. It doesn't hurt to show you'd be good company.

The great thing about these debates is that both candidates have ways they can win. The debates are as much of a tossup as the election. What a great campaign!

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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