Rules for debate-watching: It is helpful to watch televised presidential debates in the company of political partisans-- and most helpful to be able to divide your watching time between the partisans of one candidate and the partisans of the other.
It is better yet if you can avail yourself of some studiously neutral testimony on the side. And, of course, you have to trust, and be comfortable with, your own instincts.
On Tuesday night, when Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush met for the third time, all these conditions were Present and Accounted For.
I began my debate-watching Tuesday night at the roomy Republican headquarters in Park Place Mall. It was a smaller crowd than had gathered there last Wednesday but one confident in the knowledge that their man Bush, ahead again in all the polls, probably needed only to hold his own with Gore in order to lead in the stretch-- which will focus on issues and reward Get-Out-the-Vote efforts.
Consequently the crowd was both loose and edgy, aware of the consensus that Bush had won the first debate-- one in which Gore looked the bully, huffing and puffing and demanding extra time-- on style points and the second one, a variant on the Empty Chair debate in which a narcotized and chastened Gore seemed not even to be there, on both style and substance points.
The first time both men had stood behind lecterns, the second time they sat, somewhat distanced from each other, behind an angled desk which greatly benefitted a glib and comfortable Bush, who resembled nobody so much as Johnny Carson. (This was first pointed out to me by Kenneth Neill, the resident Mahatma of my workplace.)
This third matchup was the town meeting sort which featured an audience whose members would ask the questions. It was a format which Gore had worked at more often than Bush, and when both men emerged with dark suits and red ties the way they had for the first debate, it was apparent that no punches were going to be pulled.
Stay with that metaphor: the boxing one. Early on, Gore was swinging with what-the-hell vigor, a little wild. He began by staying too long with his commiserations on the death, in a plane crash the previous evening, of Missouri Governor Mel Carnavan and was stopped by moderator Jim Lehrer before he was fully launched into his first answer.
A couple of times thereafter, Lehrer stopped a would-be rebuttal by Gore cold, reminding him firmly who was in charge.
As this sort of thing kept happening to Gore, the GOP crowd was a mix of titters, belly laughs, and heady hollers. Things were going good. But this Gore, unlike those of the previous two weeks, seemed to know what he was up to and was neither mindlessly arrogant like Gore Number One nor an unoffending Prozac case like Gore Number Two.
At one point, David Kustoff, the state Bush-Cheney director who had been slam-dunk in his own debate the previous night in Germantown with Democratic counterpart Roy Herron, turned to me and asked how I thought it was going. Gores in his Andrew Golota mode, I said, cautioning Kustoff against over-confidence. Golota, of course, is the hard-hitting Polish prizefighter who has been penalized by referees (for low-blows and brawling and what-not) in virtually every one of his fights, but he has managed to win most of them, usually by knockouts, and even those few who have bested him were somewhat the worse for wear.
A little later, I told Kustoff and Shelby County GOP chairman Alan Crone (like Kustoff a solid analyst in his own right) that Bush looked a little wobbly on his feet. He was still scoring referees points Ñ a fact confirmed by the visiting Ken MacDonald of the BBC, whom I was squiring about for the evening-- but it seemed to me that Bushs bantom-cock persona might wear down in an hour and a half.
Or as I put it to Crone and Kustoff, That easiness of his is hard to maintain when youre on your feet that long.
Gore meanwhile kept bearing in, for all of Lehrers cautions and Bushs effective jabs, invoking over and over the litany of My Plan and challenging Bushs own blueprints. If this were a spending contest, Id come in second, the Republican would reply, or A lot of people are sick and tired of the bitterness of Washington, or accusing the vice presidents targeted tax cuts of favoring the Right People rather than being universal like his own.
Over at Democratic headquarters at Eastgate for the second half of the debate (in an office space which had been the GOP headaquarters only two months earlier!), a rapt crowd-- wholly unlike the distracted bunch of Dems that had seen the second debate last week at a bistro-- watched as Gore-s strength began to tell.
On several key exchanges-- concerning environmental concerns, campaign-finance reform, Hollywood excesses (ironically), and affirmative action (especially)-- Gore summoned strong, effective arguments even as a fading Bush kept managing nice soundbites. (The Texas governors Every day is Earth Day if you own the land was better said than Gores Farmers were the first evangelists.)
But a visibly weaker Bush would once in a while seem Queegllike (You heard what I was for he kept saying defiantly, eyes darting, when Gore challenged him on the Republicans use of the quota-dodging term affirmative access.) You could almost heart the marbles roll. I could certainly hear my Briton friend, Ken MacDonald, say to Bushs image, Youre no Jack Kennedy! (One judges card was going through changes!)
Bush would rally, however, and gave a sober and surprisingly moving denial to a questioners suggestion that he enjoyed putting so many prisoners to death in Texas.
At the end, the lines of argument were as clear as they had been in the first debate. Gore-- like every Democratic candidate before him-- attempted an astrophe to governmental activism. He largely succeeded and had at least three passionate and eloquent speeches to the camera in closeup. Bushs mission, like those of his Republican predecessors, was to disparage bureaucracy and extol the actions of the private sector. He, too, had some good lines late-- the kind that would play well in the next days soundbites-- but his energy seemed clearly down. Too often, he was having to play rope-a-dope.
In the end, there were two reliable indicators of how it came out. The Democrats were hooting and hollering in satisfaction, and Ken MacDonald, adopting the boxing metaphor in full, observed, It was interesting how Gore finished the fight on his feet while Bush remained in his corner. (Which was no more than saying that the aggressive Gore continued to stalk the camera while Bush hung close to his stool, but the observation captured an observable nuance.)
Gore, the erstwhile Master Debater, had metamorphosized into the Underdog for this last round, and hell get the media bounce for the next week or so. Bush may have lost on points, but not so badly as to give Gore back the advantage which the Democrat enjoyed after his successful policy-wonking, wife-smooching convention in Los Angeles.
I promise you Ill fight for you, Gore had said then. He repeated it Tuesday night in St. Louis. He proved he can fight, and its axiomatic that hell have to. This election is still anybodys to win. (No, Ralph and Pat, that doesnt mean you.)