Laid-back Bush keeps Gore at arms length

Republican candidate fends off Vice-President's attack on health and pollution record to take victory in second debate
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The Independent US

Vice-President Al Gore's bid for the White House appeared to be in fresh trouble yesterday after he was unexpectedly worsted by his Republican opponent, George W Bush, in Wednesday night's televised debate. Instant polls gave Mr Bush victory of between two and a massive 13 points. Such immediate polls can be unreliable, but the mood of the two camps told the same story.

Vice-President Al Gore's bid for the White House appeared to be in fresh trouble yesterday after he was unexpectedly worsted by his Republican opponent, George W Bush, in Wednesday night's televised debate. Instant polls gave Mr Bush victory of between two and a massive 13 points. Such immediate polls can be unreliable, but the mood of the two camps told the same story.

As the candidates headed back to the campaign trail, Mr Gore to Wisconsin and Mr Bush to Michigan- close-fought battleground states - Mr Gore's advisers were already preparing for next Tuesday's third and last debate, calculating what could be salvaged. The Bush team was cock-a-hoop, as though they hardly dared believe what had happened.

Their calculation that the round-table format, as opposed to the adversarial lecterns of the first debate, would favour their candidate had paid off. The more intimate setting gave Mr Bush an opportunity to show passion for his causes, notably education, while alternately agreeing with Mr Gore and parrying his mostly half-hearted attacks. Even Mr Bush's conspicuous failures, his non-answers to Mr Gore's attacks on the lamentable record of Texas in health care and pollution, seemed somehow less damaging around a table.

To the gratified surprise of his advisers, he even scored a few points from Mr Gore on foreign policy. He assailed the Vice-President's record on relations with Russia in charges that Mr Gore did not contest.

He coherently argued that the United States risked fulfilling the Ugly American cliché if it tried to reproduce "the American way" in other countries. He identified four Middle Eastern countries without error, and pronounced Milosevic and Chernomyrdin - perhaps for the first time in the campaign - without blanching or tripping.

Mr Gore seemed so concerned not to come across as impatient and aggressive, the traits that had lost him support in the first debate, that he appeared at times diffident. And although much of what he said - on civil rights, race and the environment - bespoke authority and experience, Mr Bush's lighter touch and growing ease with the audience left Mr Gore looking uninspired.

Sources said Mr Gore had been "retrained" and "bollocked" by his advisers after the first debate where his loud sighing, eye-rolling and repeated interventions had gone down poorly with viewers. On Wednesday night, he made a habit of qualifying his broader generalisations with phrases such as "so far as I know", "I don't want to jump in here". But the awful thought must have occurred to his handlers that attack is his natural dimension and he is far less effective in any other mode.

As soon as the 90-minute encounter was over, the expressions of the two families told all. A solemn Tipper Gore and their daughter, Karenna, hugged the Vice-President as though in consolation. A beaming Laura Bush gave her husband the thumbs-up from the front row.

Only the coming days will show whether George Bush did enough to break out of the neck-and-neck jockeying of the past month. Judging by the response of the audience at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, inside and outside the hall, he did manage to convince some of the still uncommitted voters that he has what it takes to be President.

Academic election watchers say the 2000 presidential race has now been closer for longer than the one between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in 1960. Al Gore and George Bush meet again in St Louis on Tuesday - and the stakes will be higher than ever.

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