Gore's last stand

Will he come out swinging or play nice in Tuesday night's town hall battle? Experts' advice to the vice president: Be yourself, whoever that is.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published October 17, 2000 6:01PM (EDT)

If Al Gore doesn't knock out George W. Bush in tonight's final presidential debate, the vice president could be out of luck in this race. The New York Post reports that Gore supporters consider this debate a make-or-break moment for their man, but even the 13 "real people" who travel with him as debate coaches are not quite sure what strategy will work. "I don't know, I really don't know," said teacher Susan Fadley. Still, she recommends that Gore do what worked best in the second contest: "Really go after [Bush's] record in Texas," Fadley concluded.

The unreal people of the political world are also wondering what Gore might to do to best Bush without coming off as a bully. One Democratic strategist said that Gore's personality could overpower the substance of his arguments. "It could be that people just looked at Al Gore and didn't like him," the strategist said. He went on to discount the power of ripping the governor's Texas record again. "Attacking Texas is the kind of thing that works in polls but maybe not so well in the real world where people want to talk about your plans for the future."

100 percent pure Al
With the clock ticking on the presidential race, Gore's getting the same advice from his tribe of consultants that most people first hear in kindergarten self-esteem songs: Just be yourself. The New York Times reports that such a command is more complicated than it sounds, particularly because there was such a radical difference between the way Gore behaved in the first debate and the way he behaved in the second. "Voters have seen too many Al Gores in the last two debates," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "He's got to be the person he's going to be in the next four years." Hart added that the perception of Gore as a political shape shifter blunts his advantages as the more experienced and smarter candidate. "When everything is said and done about George W. Bush, he may be wearing the dunce's hat," he said, "but the voter senses that he's comfortable with himself and they perceive him to be engaging and likable and straightforward and honest, and those aren't inconsiderable traits."

Town hall plays the tame game
Bush's folksy demeanor is a trait the could prove especially valuable in Tuesday night's debate format, according to USA Today. But several debate experts believe the contest has been completely defanged by compromises made with the candidates. In the first town hall debate in 1992, citizens were allowed to ask both questions and follow-up questions. In 1996, follow-up questions were eliminated. In Tuesday's debate, citizens won't even be allowed to speak. Questions must be written out and then filtered through moderator Jim Lehrer. "If you won't let people ask what they want to the way they want to, what's the point?" asks Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University, author of the book "Presidential Debates." Mitchell McKinney, a University of Missouri speech communication professor, agrees that the new town hall format is toothless. "Those citizens are there as props," he said.

Setting aside objections to the format, Schroeder believes that the vice president has the advantage. "Bush is much less comfortable in this setting than Gore," Schroeder said, citing Gore's hundreds of town hall meetings as a representative and senator. And Bush could suffer from flashbacks, because it was in the first town hall debate in 1992 that President Clinton buried his father.

Poll power up for grabs
Though Bush is thought to have the momentum going into Tuesday night's battle, no one can claim to be the front-runner. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Bush leading Gore 48 to 44 percent, a statistical dead heat with a three-point margin of error. The most recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll scores the race as Bush 47 to Gore 44 percent, with Ralph Nader at 3 percent and Pat Buchanan trailing at 1 percent. This poll has a four-point margin of error. The Reuters/MSNBC poll shows an even tighter contest, with Bush at 44, Gore at 43 and Nader at 6 percent. Buchanan remains tied with Libertarian candidate Harry Browne at 1 percent, with a three-point margin of error.

On the trail
Bush: Missouri.
Buchanan: North Dakota.
Gore: Missouri.
Nader: Missouri.

Presidential poll positions
Major-party candidates:

  • Bush 44 to Gore 43 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 13-15).
  • Bush 47 to Gore 44 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 13-15).
  • Bush 48 to Gore 44 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 12-15).
  • Bush 43 to Gore 41 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 12-14).
  • Gore 43 to Bush 42 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Gore 44 to Bush 43 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).

    Third-party candidates:

  • Nader 6 to Buchanan 1, Browne 1 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 13-15).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 13-15).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 2 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 5 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).

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  • Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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