Washington All they needed was a little practice.
After two false starts, Al Gore and George Bush finally got this debate thing right.
In fact, the third and final Al & George face-off was as spirited, taut and crackling a scrimmage as you could want. For head-to-head combat, it rivaled such classics as 1960's Kennedy vs. Nixon and 1980's Carter vs. Reagan.
Wavering, fickle or undecided voters if they weren't watching "Dark Angel" or the Mariner-Yankee playoffs should have had their minds cleared by the televised rumble from St. Louis.
That's because the contrasts between Gore and Bush were distinctly drawn in their slashing counterattacks.
No Tweedledum and Tweedledummer, but different guys, styles, philosophies.
All that Al and George had in common was an almost ferocious desire to win a 2000 race that is the tightest in a generation.
It will probably stay close. I thought both Gore and Bush gave the performances their handlers had desperately wanted. But neither broke open the contest.
Forget the stereotype of "Al the Fibber" vs. "George the Bumbler." Those bozos didn't show up.
Instead, Gore and Bush showed passion, anger and a crisp antagonism as they circled each other on the melon-colored rug like a pair of cobras. The town-hall format, with real folks dominating the 90 minutes instead of Jim Lehrer, gave the event the feel of a club fight.
The mystery for Gore's backers: Which Al would climb into the ring? Remember, in the first Boston debate, Gore seemed over-caffeinated, annoying, bossy. In the second Winston-Salem debate, he seemed on Prozac. Would "Just Right" Al show up in St. Loo? Well, close enough.
You could sense that Gore felt like a fighter behind in points who needed badly to come out swinging in the late rounds. After all, Bush had edged ahead by three to five points in national polls and closed the gap in such key states as Pennsylvania. Al needed to rally. And did.
Gore was aggressive, energetic, impassioned the "killer debater" Democrats had hoped to see earlier. Sure, he got swamped in wonkish details (raise your hand if you care about the Dingell-Norwood Bill?). But Gore was at his best no sighs, no lies, no pushy arrogance.
Bush, although he had his belligerent moments, seemed more content to glide through the debate and relieved at the 15th-round bell. He made no gaffes and was tensely poised. But Dubya's repetitive mantra that Gore was a big-government spender hit a wall.
As a personality contest, you'd give the nod to Bush he was more human, likeable, humorous, a regular guy.
But on substance, Gore had an edge. He had the sharper arguments on health care, prescription drugs, education. He came closer to presenting what Bush's daddy once called "the vision thing." Bush's best moment, oddly, came when a questioner noted that in the previous debate he'd seemed "overjoyed" about Texas ranking No. 1 in executing people.
"No, I'm not proud of that," said Bush solemnly. "Serious business. As governor I've seen some tough cases cross my desk. I ask, is the person guilty of the crime, did he have full access to the courts? I'm proud violent crime is down in Texas." It eased the sting of the caricature of Bush as Chief Executioner, who has been known to giggle in describing death cases. Gore, though, also supports the death penalty.
Gore's best moment was his exasperated retort to Bush's portrayal of him as an addicted Big Spender. "I'm not for bigger government," said Gore, glowering at Bush. "I've helped streamline government. In the last eight years we've reduced federal workers by 300,000, smallest since John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, Texas government went up."
They jabbed bitterly over Social Security, with Gore slamming Bush's plan to put money into the stock market.
They wrestled over health care Bush scoffing that Gore would revive Hillary Clinton's failed 1992 plan while Gore insisted, "I'll fight against the big drug and insurance companies."
In their last minute, Bush seemed fatigued, repeating his refrain about giving money to the people. Gore closed with an aria of hope: "I keep my word. I kept faith with my country. I keep faith with my family. I'll fight for the middle class. You ain't seen nothing yet." Easy to translate Gore's closure: I'm not Bill Clinton.
The St. Louis slugfest gave fuzzy voters a sharper contrast. Bush had a down-to-earth charm, Gore had the aggressive braininess.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.