With nothing new to say, they turned a live debate into another repeat

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The Independent US

If Al Gore and George W Bush seemed to spend more time reciting chunks of their campaign stump speeches than they did actually debating on Tuesday night, that was largely the fault of television.

If Al Gore and George W Bush seemed to spend more time reciting chunks of their campaign stump speeches than they did actually debating on Tuesday night, that was largely the fault of television.

Television, that great low common denominator the screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky once defined as the "common rubble of banality", offered the candidates their biggest audience of the campaign so far -75 million people - and neither man seemed inclined to stray far from the well-rehearsed, well-practised lines they had each used many times before.

Sure, Mr Gore had already declared himself to be "his own man" and promised "never to let the American people down" during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, but that commanded a television audience of just 20 million.

Likewise, Mr Bush's lines about being for the people rather than for government, were so old they induced a state of narcolepsy in the CBS anchor Dan Rather, but might just have reached some less assiduous political observers in their armchairs at home.

The lack of adventurousness perhaps explains why the flurry of post-debate polls showed much the same as every other poll: that Mr Gore is ahead on the issues and Mr Bush strikes voters as considerably less unimpressive than they might have thought. Unscientific random samplings by NBC and CBS declared Mr Gore the winner by a comfortable margin, while a similar poll for ABC put them almost level. Perhaps the most significant poll, conducted by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, showed Mr Gore doing better (48 per cent to 41 per cent) but showed Mr Bush convincing a sizeable chunk of voters that he was, after all, up to the challenges of the presidency (34 per cent of respondents said their image of him improved, against 14 per cent who said it got worse).

Also significant, however, was the fact only 3 per cent said the debate had changed their minds.

Initial impressions suggested that attention on the televised debate was hardly rapt. In California, evidence gathered from restaurants and bars suggested viewers cocked half an ear at the screen at best. Reports in newspapers across the country had voters popping to the kitchen for beers and making phone calls. NBC did not carry the debate at all, opting instead for a baseball game.

"I'm yet to hear anything to get me excited about either of these candidates," was a representative comment from an undecided Californian voter.

Tuesday night was nevertheless the best shot Mr Gore and Mr Bush will have. Their next debate, in North Carolina on Wednesday, is expected to draw a far lower television audience, as is today's vice-presidential stand-off between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

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