No room for error as Gore and Bush go head to head

From the height of the lecterns to the temperature in the auditorium and the angle of the cameras, nothing has been left to chance
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The Independent US

Forty years ago, the beads of sweat on Richard Nixon's feverish brow scuppered his first bid for the White House. Last night, as Al Gore and George W Bush stood behind their lecterns for the presidential campaign's first televised debate, nothing - not even perspiration - had been left to chance.

Forty years ago, the beads of sweat on Richard Nixon's feverish brow scuppered his first bid for the White House. Last night, as Al Gore and George W Bush stood behind their lecterns for the presidential campaign's first televised debate, nothing - not even perspiration - had been left to chance.

Come today, the race, which in recent days has settled into a virtual dead heat, could look entirely different. Depending on their performances before an audience expected to top 60 million, the candidates might find themselves suddenly propelled into the lead - or flailing in their rival's wash. Each was under almost unthinkable pressure both to put their best side forward and, of course, to make no gaffe.

With so much at stake - analysts billed the debate the most crucial since Kennedy and Nixon clashed 40 years ago - all campaigning in the traditional sense has been on hold since last week. Energies have been dedicated to preparing the two men for their 90 minutes under lights together and, just as importantly, spinning the media and voters on what to expect.

Almost hidden have been the negotiations between the camps that only ended a few days ago on just how the debate should be set up. Every conceivable detail was contested. What they agreed determined much of what viewers witnessed last night from the moment the two men took their places on the podiums in a hall of the University of Massachusetts in Boston to the moment they left.

Indeed, neither candidate should have sweated very much. That is because they agreed to set the temperature in the university's Clark Center at 65F (18C). The lecterns themselves were to be precisely 48 inches tall, apparently a good height for Mr Bush who did not want to seem short next to his Democratic rival. Even the number of aides waiting back stage was set down.

Entirely visible, on the other hand, have been the candidates' preparation sessions. Each campaign wanted voters to know precisely how hard their guys were working. And they also wanted to spook each other out. It was no mistake that Mr Gore decided to have his final dress rehearsals in Sarasota, Florida, a state that was meant to be an easy win for Mr Bush but which these days looks up for grabs.

The prize for pre-debate media manipulation must surely go to Mr Gore. His stunt was to invite 13 "ordinary folk" along with him to Sarasota to help him grasp what voters want to hear. They included a construction work, a firefighter and a teacher. The suddenly famous group attended meetings with him, heard him rehearse and strolled with him on the beach, with reporters and cameras on hand.

To some degree, Mr Gore also went into the debate last night in the slightly more comfortable position. The newest polls have given him a renewed, if small, edge over his opponent. A New York Times/CBS survey released yesterday put him at 45 per cent of the vote over 41 per cent for Mr Bush. Moreover, when asked numerous other questions, for example on specific issues, Mr Gore almost always came out in front. As for their preparedness for the presidency, the latter scored 71 per cent against 49 per cent for the Republican Mr Bush.

The expectations game may have been working against the Vice-President, however. Because Mr Gore has so much experience in debating and a reputation for squishing his foes, the danger of disappointment was greater for him. Aides for Mr Bush, however, have worked relentlessly to downplay expectations for him. Even if he has performed only credibly, the Texas governor could still get a big lift.

For Mr Gore, the greatest challenge was dispelling his image as a policy automaton with a tendency towards condescension. Aides were also signaling that he would stay with policy issues and resist easy attacks on his opponent. The task for Mr Bush, meanwhile, was to erase the impression that, according to pollsters, still lingers in voters' minds - that he is too lightweight and too flip for the big job.

Mr Bush, finally, also had to avoid stumbling over his syllables. His tendency to mangle words - most famously he had trouble recently with the word "subliminal" - has given easy fodder to the other side.

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