Bush back in race as rivals face second trial

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The Independent US

George W Bush sped ahead of Vice-President Al Gore in the opinion polls yesterday, attaining the psychologically critical 50 per cent for the first time since his rival's post-convention surge at the end of August. A Washington Post/ABC Television poll gave the Republican his halfway rating and most other daily polls also showed him pulling ahead by margins of 2 to 6 points.

George W Bush sped ahead of Vice-President Al Gore in the opinion polls yesterday, attaining the psychologically critical 50 per cent for the first time since his rival's post-convention surge at the end of August. A Washington Post/ABC Television poll gave the Republican his halfway rating and most other daily polls also showed him pulling ahead by margins of 2 to 6 points.

These fresh reversals dampened the mood in the Vice-President's campaign just hours before he and Mr Bush squared up last night for their second televised confrontation. This was a round-table "debate" at the élite Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

Anticipating perhaps his humbler status, a slightly abashed Mr Gore had told reporters before leaving for North Carolina that he would try harder to avoid mistakes and would "probably sigh a little less". His remarks were an implicit admission that while he won last week's Boston round on technical merit, he lost hands down on artistic impression.

By any objective system of scoring, Mr Gore was the victor; the Democrat had flaunted his superior command of facts and figures with nary a challenge from his opponent. According to the subjective judgement of American voters, however, he failed the two tests he was supposed to have trained for: likeability and veracity.

Many viewers found his demeanour overbearing, his frequent interjections annoying and his exasperated sighs and conspicuous grimaces during Mr Bush's contributions rude and immature. And he was also caught in embellishments of the truth. None was especially heinous in itself - a misremembered disaster-relief visit for example - but together they recalled earlier overstatements, such as his notorious claim to have "invented" the internet.

Neither the histrionics nor the inaccuracies went down well with voters who swiftly set about stripping him of his post-convention lead over Mr Bush. Yet despite yesterday's encouraging poll numbers for the Republican, the contest is still far from over. On the eve of last night's debate, undecided voters stood at 8 to 10 per cent, almost the same as a month ago.

The format for the encounter was the round-table talkshow model rather than the earlier adversarial lecterns. But both still had everything to prove. Mr Gore had another shot at likeability; Mr Bush had to show competence. For while the Texas Governor had not completely flunked the competence test in the first debate, he had not shone either, and at times looked worryingly like a rabbit caught in a juggernaut's headlights.

For the pundits, the question was what, if anything, the two candidates had learnt from their first encounter. For the many still undecided voters, the question was whether they could bear to vote for either.

After the widely praised vice-presidential debate last week, which pitted the Democratic senator Joe Lieberman against the former defence secretary, Dick Cheney, a common view was that both tickets areupside-down. One wavering voter even asked: "Why should we vote for those clowns?" when the deputies inspired so much more confidence.

"Those clowns" were back after a week of denigrating their opponents by proxy. Bush surrogates had been wheeled out to call Mr Gore a "serial exaggerater", while Gore advisers accused Mr Bush of "incoherent babbling" for repeatedly bungling the calculation of his tax-reform plan. In such circumstances, a recreation of the civility of the Lieberman-Cheney match looked less and less likely for Gore v Bush, round two.

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