Everyone knew that Al Gore was going to show up for the third and final debate of the 2000 presidential campaign Tuesday night. But almost nobody knew which Gore would walk onto the stage.
In the end after all the changes of clothes and slogans and tactics the man who appeared at Washington University in St. Louis looked mostly like a man struggling to find an effective way to keep his long quest for the presidency from slipping from his grasp.
Gore entered the debate having lost his lead, trailing George W. Bush in the polls, and fast running out of time to change people's minds three weeks before election day. After trying radically different personalities in the first debates tough one week, conciliatory the next Gore got one more piece of advice before this last effort: Be yourself.
For 90 minutes, Gore appeared to be working to find himself, his true voice and the bright prospects of his political career.
No longer able to cede anything to Bush, Gore went after his rival from the start. Throughout, he sat still, almost coiled, bounding out of his seat when called upon and rushing to make as many points as possible in his allotted time. Several times, he interrupted Bush, another time he interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer to interject, "My turn."
He wanted to draw sharp differences with Bush, to remind undecided voters that they prefer his approach on a long list of issues such as education, Medicare and Social Security.
But he found Bush constantly answering with proposals of his own for all those popular programs and more, blurring the differences between them. Looking to close his own sales pitch, Bush criticized Gore's agenda as an expensive expansion of the federal government and hoped his own more amiable personality would charm the voters.
Entering this series of three debates, the most critical moments of the campaign, Gore misjudged almost everything about them the audience, the host, the opponent, and himself.
For months, Gore all but taunted the less experienced Bush to debate him anytime. He wanted to face Bush on NBC's "Meet the Press," on CNN's "Larry King Live," anywhere.
Yet when Bush agreed to face Gore on NBC and CNN, and in one of three proposed debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Gore balked. Those audiences would be too small, he said; the two men had to appear in all three of the commission-sponsored debates so they would be seen on all television networks.
Gore got his way, but the debates never commanded the kind of national audience that he hoped.
Only about 45 million tuned into the first, about the same as in the debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole when there was absolutely no drama in Clinton's easy trot to re-election. And even as this autumn's race promised the closest contest since 1980 or even 1960, another 8 million tuned out by the time of the second debate last week.
Assuming the same rate of defection to baseball or wrestling, as few as 30 million might have watched the third debate.
Like many, Gore misjudged Bush, thinking the far less experienced governor little match. But Bush successfully mitigated Gore's advantage on issues most important to voters such as education, Medicare coverage of prescription drugs and Social Security. He also stood his ground on difficult terrain like foreign policy, and then used his more engaging personality to charm many voters.
And Gore certainly misjudged his own performance at least twice.