Debates which will decide future of Presidency

How the two candidates come across to voters will make all the difference. So what is the secret to winning the television war?
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For George W. Bush, the great debate challenge is to be likable without being laughable, and to show he is no slouch on the finer points of policy.

For George W. Bush, the great debate challenge is to be likable without being laughable, and to show he is no slouch on the finer points of policy.

For Al Gore, it is to be likable without being boring, and to show he is no stiff when talking policy.

Bush needs to avoid his sometimes twisting tongue, so as not to replay the kind of slips opponents cite to support their contention that he isn't up to the job. Gore has to restrain his attack instinct and habit of interrupting displayed in prior debates. It would be damaging in a campaign in which denouncing negative tactics has become a positive strategy.

For debate watchers Tuesday night, rating the presidential nominees on those points could be a guide to the impact of the 90-minute meeting on a campaign in which Democrat Gore and Republican Bush are running almost dead even in the polls. In a contest this close, any durable debate gain would be crucial, and the opening in Boston of the three Gore-Bush debates will set the tone for the rest of the series, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Oct. 11, and St. Louis on Oct. 17.

Unless one or the other changes the odds with a major blunder any time during their 4 1/2 face-to-face hours, which is unlikely, the moments and images of greatest impact seldom are that obvious. Bush has more to prove, and an extra burden to bear. His stumbles with words and syntax, something his father the president also did, would hurt under the glare of the debate lights and cameras.

They have been fodder for the late-night TV comedians, and he can't afford to leave them laughing over a debate glitch. The governor of Texas has to show the nation he is a candidate of presidential standing and bearing, in style and in substance.

After eight years as vice president, Gore is past that threshold, but with his own set of problems. He has skillfully unwoven two strands of his record, claiming a hand in shaping the thriving economy while avoiding the burden of President Bill Clinton's personal misconduct - and so far, of his own missteps in 1996 campaign fund raising.

Gore has been at this longer. He ran for president in 1988, debating in that primary campaign before an early dropout. In 1992 and 1996, Gore debated his vice presidential rivals, displaying a quick hit style with opening quips that carried a barbed edge.

He debated Bill Bradley 10 times this year in their campaign for the nomination, dissecting his rival's proposals with onslaughts Bradley described as attack, attack, attack. Gore began prodding for debates more than a year ago, when Bradley emerged as a threat to his nomination, saying there ought to be one every week, then upping it to two.

He put the same challenge to Bush - scrap ads and just debate. It was a safe enough challenge, because neither Bradley nor Bush took it. Against an incumbent nominee in good economic times - usually a sign that the party in power will stay there - the Republican challenger can't afford to drop any weapon in the campaign arsenal. In contrast to Gore's debate demands, Bush first proposed a more modest schedule than the unofficial but influential Commission on Presidential Debates. He yielded, but not before the maneuver helped Democrats argue that he feared the forums.

That was then, and Gore's side isn't saying that anymore. They worry that too much will be expected of the vice president, and that Bush will benefit just by holding his own. To serve that purpose, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes called Gore "the best debater in politics today." But she couldn't resist a shot to the contrary, calling him robot-like.

"Obviously, we've got expectations problems," Gore campaign chairman William Daley said. And Gore has gone from daring Bush to debates to saying his rival is a skilled, formidable debater. Gore says they ought to be rated even as debaters because Bush has won every time he's done it, for governor and for the presidential nomination.

But Bush didn't win the nomination on debating points. He faced his presidential primary rivals in 10, with no knockouts. There seldom are in debates. They most often serve to reinforce the arguments candidates make every day they campaign, before wider audiences - an estimated 60 million and up for the presidential debates - and to cement rather than change impressions of the nominees.

Gerald R. Ford was seen as a president prone to stumbles when he blundered in a 1976 debate by saying the Soviet Union did not dominate eastern Europe. Michael Dukakis was described by critics as a bland bureaucrat of a nominee in 1988, and his dispassionate reply to the question of whether he'd change his opposition to capital punishment were his wife the victim fit that image.

In each case, the nominee suffered more for the debate moment than would have been so for a candidate who didn't carry such baggage. Bush and Gore carry their own to the stage in Boston.