Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2000 / 12 Tishrei, 5761
As he entered his trailer on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston last week for the first presidential debate, he was greeted by an old friend: A gigantic fiberglass shark. Which meant there were two sharks in the room.
His staff had borrowed the fake shark from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., where Gore had done his debate prep. And in keeping with the theme of "creatures you do not want to mess with," the staffers also had hung up a giant stingray.
As a bonus, they threw in Gore's lucky mule harness, which had hung in the barn where Gore had done his 1992 debate prep. Sharks, stingrays, mules. Deadly, painful, plodding. All of which are better images than the animal Gore used to be associated with: the chameleon. But Gore has given adaptability a good name. When the old Gore wasn't working, Gore fashioned a new one and today nobody accuses him of "not being comfortable in his own skin." In fact, both candidates are extremely comfortable with themselves, which is why their debate showed the plain, though not enormous, differences between a traditional Democrat and a traditional Republican.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both men got the same advice before going into the debate hall: Be yourself. Gore left his trailer, where he had engaged in a series of rapid-fire questions and answers with aides, and sat in a small holding area behind a curtain, studying some hand-written notes.
When word came that it was time to begin the debate, Gore fell silent for a moment as if in prayer, stood and walked out to the stage.
Bush had won the coin toss, but to the surprise of the Gore forces, Bush had chosen neither to receive the first question nor to give the last closing remarks.
Instead, Bush opted to give the first closing remarks, which Gore aides assumed he would use to attack Gore in an attempt to unnerve him.
Instead, moderator Jim Lehrer tossed Bush an irresistibly fat pitch as a last question: "Are there issues of character that distinguish you from Vice President Gore?" Bush used that opportunity to attack Gore for the Buddhist Temple and Lincoln Bedroom fund raising during the 1996 campaign.
But Gore was expecting a character attack and stuck to his script. "I think we ought to attack the country's problems, not each other," Gore said under the theory that sometimes sharks do best by hiding their teeth. "Bush's attack at the end was a big, big mistake," a Gore aide claimed. And, in fact, Gore probably did more damage to himself, with misstatements about trips he never took and children without desks. But Bush has surged in the polls ever since his attacks.
Afterward, both camps pronounced themselves delighted. "I wouldn't change a thing," Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said. "I'm not sure we need to practice for the next debate." Privately, however, Bush aides admitted to a certain amount of frustration at Bush's failure to close the deal. "He needs to connect his ideas with how they will improve people's lives, and he hasn't done that yet," said a Bush confidant.
The Gore campaign would be happy if the next two debates go exactly the same way as the first, though minus Gore's sighs and whispers. "Neither one of these guys are knock-out punchers," says Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley. "There are going to be a lot of body blows, a lot of grappling and holding, and then I believe after the third debate, the results will be locked in. "
Though Bush is now leading in some polls and trailing narrowly on others, there are storm clouds on the horizon for Bush, and a very dark sky looms over the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania.
Gore and Bush have probably spent more time and have certainly spent more money -- about $24 million -- on the Keystone State than on any other. On paper, Pennsylvania looks ripe for Bush's picking: While there are more Democrats than Republicans in the state, the Democrats tend to be conservative and both U.S. senators are Republican as well as the governor, Tom Ridge, who is an energetic Bush supporter. In addition, the Republicans held their convention in Philadelphia partly in order to lock up the state.
But the respected Keystone Poll shows Gore with a daunting 12 point lead, 49 to 37. "The Keystone state is going to be key in this election," says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, who says Pennsylvania is like New Hampshire was in the primaries, where Bush and John McCain spent a lot of time going at each other. "The people had a chance to take a very close look and analyze the two of them very closely back then," says Lehane, noting that Bush lost New Hampshire. "In Pennsylvania, people are getting the same opportunity. And we're seeing a similar pattern: The more people see of Bush, the less they like him."
Based on their own polling, Gore strategists now believe Pennsylvania is theirs, allowing them to spend more time in states like Michigan, Ohio and Florida. One might expect Bush to make the same calculation, but on the day after the first debate, Bush gamely headed back to Pennsylvania. This annoyed some of his strategists, who say Bush needs to hold the states that Bob Dole and his father won, and focus particularly on Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Missouri and Wisconsin. And they admit he needs Florida and Georgia, or it's over.
But Florida is a problem. Even though his brother is the governor, the state is not safely in the Bush column. And with Pat Buchanan now on the ballot there and with $12 million in federal funds to finance his campaign, he could draw enough votes away from Bush to throw Florida and its 25 electoral votes to Gore.
Politics is about more than geography, however. It is about message and the messenger, and the right wing of Bush's party is already howling for him to switch tactics and savage Gore in the second debate scheduled for tonight in Winston-Salem, N.C.
As of now, Bush strategists are debating whether the Texas governor should focus on how many opportunities were wasted over the last seven years, go back to the trust issue by arguing that Gore simply won't deliver on what he promises, or paint Gore as a man who exaggerates, fibs and flubs.
No matter what he chooses, Winston-Salem will probably be a livelier debate than Boston.
And may the best shark