Mortal combat for the candidates

Neck and neck in the polls, Al Gore and George W Bush are squaring up for TV debates which could decide the result
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The Independent US

This Tuesday night, resembling nothing so much as two soberly dressed prize-fighters, Vice-President Al Gore and Governor George W Bush will step out on to the stage at the Kennedy Library in Boston to confront each other in that ultimate ordeal of an American election: the gladiatorial contest known as the presidential debate.

This Tuesday night, resembling nothing so much as two soberly dressed prize-fighters, Vice-President Al Gore and Governor George W Bush will step out on to the stage at the Kennedy Library in Boston to confront each other in that ultimate ordeal of an American election: the gladiatorial contest known as the presidential debate.

With opinion polls showing the two candidates now locked in a dead heat, and the votes of a bare 10 per cent of the electorate still in contention, the debates - of which this week's is the first - are the final, and in all likelihood deciding, bout in a campaign that has been almost two years in the waging.

You have to go back two decades, to Reagan v Carter in 1980, and maybe even to 1960, when Kennedy just pipped Nixon to the finishing post, to find a race that was so close at so late a stage. And in both elections, historians of politics concur, it was the televised debates that made the difference. In 1960, after the first ever televised debate, radio listeners were convinced that Nixon had won. On television, however, the ponderous and sometimes shifty looking Richard Nixon was no match for John F Kennedy's youthful good looks and thoughtful wit.

Television had had its say and would do again, but not for 16 years. Lyndon Johnson distrusted television and Nixon, understandably perhaps, after his experience in 1960, forewent debates. It was left to Gerald Ford to reintroduce the televised debate, to Jimmy Carter to continue it and to Ronald Reagan, whose task was to convince Americans that a "mere actor" had what it takes to be President, to establish it as the setpiece showdown that it has now become.

And as George W Bush discovered to his cost last month, you can question the precise form that the duel takes, but to appear to question the principle of a one-on-one encounter on nationwide television is no longer permissible. Try as he might to convince audiences that Mr Gore was trying to duck the confrontation, the American public judged otherwise and Mr Bush was forced to eat humble pie. Cutting his losses, he instructed his negotiators to "just end it" (the debate about debates), and he accepted the bulk of the cross-party debate committee's original proposals.

His one victory was to secure a round-table format for the second "debate", giving him the cosier framework he prefers. The only truly formal debate, with each candidate at a lectern on a platform, will be the first. Again, the Bush camp's calculation may have been that as this is the sort of forum in which he feels least comfortable, it is as well to get it over with.

This weekend, both candidates were closeted with a team of advisers at what were dubbed debate "training camps". Mr Bush was in the seclusion of his Texas ranch, where he has spent most weekends, with experts and coaches. Mr Gore was in Sarasota, a plush resort on the Gulf coast of Florida (which just happens to be a closely fought state that he hopes to win), where he was polishing his rapid reaction skills not just with long-standing sparring partners, but with a dozen "ordinary people" plucked from among questioners at some of his recent public events.

The inclusion of such "outsiders" was seen as an effort by the Gore camp to minimise their candidate's biggest perceived liability. An experienced and often aggressive debater, Mr Gore could lose support with swing voters - his allies fear - by appearing overly ruthless in his zeal to clinch every point. Understanding how offputting this could be, especially if Mr Bush preserves his customary air of affable cool, could reduce that risk.

If coming across as unlikeable is Mr Gore's biggest problem, Mr Bush has to dispel a whole gamut of doubts. He cannot afford to seem ignorant, inarticulate, superficial or glib. As late as Friday, his advisers were applying the time-honoured tactic of dampening expectations of their man, while talking up his opponent. Mr Gore, said Karen Hughes, Mr Bush's spokeswoman, is "the most experienced and probably the best debater in American politics today", while Mr Bush "would not include debating among his particular strengths".

The whole attraction of the live debate is the conjunction of collective national experience and second-to-second tension: one incautious word, one ungracious gesture, or - as with President Bush in 1992 - one glance at the watch - can spell the sudden death of a lifetime's ambition.

The only caveat is that this year, of all years, the instant verdict of America's pundits may not be the most reliable gauge of the voters' response.

Several times in this campaign, most recently after Mr Gore's address to the Democratic Convention, and again after Hillary Clinton's debate with her young opponent, Rick Lazio, in the race for the New York Senate seat, the professionals have misread the people. With Hillary, the pundits largely failed to appreciate that, while political correctness and equality of aggression is the rule on the coasts, in the heartland the way a man treats a woman still matters. The pundits voted a tie; the people, a victory for Mrs Clinton.

The discrepancy after the Democratic Convention was still starker. Where reporters in the hall saw a charged-up speaker racing his autocue and gabbling his words, television viewers saw a speaker who was fast, but controlled and above all sincere.

Where America's journalistic élite judged that Mr Gore's populist pledge to "fight" for the little guy against the interests of big business was out of tune with the public mood, his rapid surge in the polls suggested otherwise.

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