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Wait Chapel event a homecoming for the debate commission

Ranks of protesters thin at Wake Forest

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (CNN) -- Some 13 years after its inception, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential debates returned home Wednesday night.

This second of three contests between Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican Party nominee for the White House, and Democratic Vice President Al Gore, closely mirrored the first-ever debate arranged by the commission, which took place on Sept. 25, 1988, in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University.

"This is a homecoming for the commission," a smiling commission Executive Director, Janet Brown, said as she introduced herself Wednesday night.

Members of the commission and university officials were more than pleased to point out the similarities between the two rhetorical contests, saying the commission's 13 years of existence, and its fourth presidential election cycle, were testimony to its effectiveness as an educational organization.

"This debate is but another token of what our common civic resolve can accomplish," university president Thomas Hearn told the debate audience inside the chapel, just prior to the arrival of Bush and Gore.

Debates, Hearn continued, are an "exercise in voter education."

"Candidates have a duty to teach those whom they would persuade," he said.

Members of the commission all but beamed as they went about their ceremonial duties Wednesday night as Bush and Gore prepared just off stage for their showdown. A circle had been completed, some said, elevating the status of the commission, and making it essential to the democratic process.

The commission, co-Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., said Wednesday night, provides "the most important voter education project we have. Televised debates."

The commission was founded in 1987 in an effort to keep widely viewed debates between the major party candidates a mainstay of the presidential election process. Public debates prior to the Kennedy-Nixon exchanges of 1960 were a rare occurrence, and there were no debates in the years between 1960 and 1976.

The site of the first commission debate was proposed by three Wake Forest students in 1988. Many students who volunteered their time to keep the massive event from devolving into chaos Wednesday quietly expressed hope that a trend was developing, and that the Atlantic Coast Conference school would become a regular election-year stopping point for presidential hopefuls.

Key format change

The 1988 contest between then-Vice President George Bush, father of the current Republican candidate, and Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis took place on the very same stage as this week's event, and was shepherded by the very same moderator -- Jim Lehrer, anchor of the PBS "Newshour."

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    Then, as now, the event featured a current vice president, and a popular state governor. Then, as now, foreign policy dominated much of the night's discussions.

    But a new format was initiated for Wednesday's match up, and some participants were nervous at the outset.

    In the 1988 debate, Bush and Dukakis faced each other from across the colonial-style chapel's stage while positioned at lecterns. The 90-minute affair, whose featured format has been used most commonly in the four cycles since, consisted of timed responses to questions posed by the moderator, rebuttals, and follow-up responses to those rebuttals.

    For the first time, the presidential candidates were seated at a crescent-shaped table, facing the roughly 1,500-person crowd, as Lehrer sat with his back to the audience. The format was championed by Bush in rough pre-debate negotiations with the commission and the Gore campaign, mainly because Bush's handlers believe the governor excels in conversational situations, rather than a more strictly structured atmosphere.

    In the early hours after the contest, it would appear that their insistence on the format may have paid off. Many early, unscientific polls of viewers indicated Bush edged Gore in the arena of voter opinion.

    A CNN/USA Today/Gallup "flash" poll conducted immediately after the 90-minute debate closed gave Bush a 49 percent to 36 percent edge over Gore in performance.

    Gore
    Vice President Al Gore  

    Bush's handlers credited the debate format for the governor's relaxed by authoritative presence.

    "Vice President Gore needed to change the dynamics of the debate," advisor Ed Gillespie said, describing the Bush campaign's perception that Gore needed to walk a long road to atone for his unattractive behavior last Tuesday in Boston.

    "He came out trying to change the dynamics, but he couldn't," Gillespie said.

    When introduced prior to the opening of the contest, Gore emerged from stage left smiling and waving, while Bush appeared from the opposite side of the stage, arms at his side, a stern look pasted across his face.

    "He didn't roll his eyes and he didn't sigh 17 times in 20 minutes as he did last week," Gillespie continued, "But he couldn't change what was happening up there."

    Republicans have ripped Gore successfully in the course of the last few days for sighing and engaging in other outward expressions of exasperation as Bush spoke in Boston last week. Gore also took heat for embellishing anecdotal stories to drive home some of his points, for interrupting Bush, and for appearing condescending and unnecessarily book smart when addressing certain points of history and geopolitics.

    The criticism seemed to have a sharp effect on Gore. He waited for more than 45 minutes Wednesday before letting loose his first anecdotal story, this of a conversation with an African-American police officer in Springfield, Massachusetts, about racial profiling.

    Gore has relied on such stories through much of this 2000 election season. He used numerous so-called real-life stories last week in Boston, and lobbed them liberally early in the primary season when he debated former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

    Bush
    Gov. George W. Bush  

    He also restrained his body language, aided, doubtlessly, by the little movement allowed by the on-stage chairs. As for his alleged know-it-all demeanor, he seemed intent on keeping that under wraps as well. And his hesitancy led him to add caveats to some fact others might regard as obvious.

    "I think that one of the problems that we have faced in the world is that we are so much more powerful than any single nation has been in relationship to the rest of the world than at any time in history -- that I know about, anyway," he said in the contest's early stages.

    The governor's younger brother Jeb, the GOP Florida governor, said the format kept Gore penned in. "He overcompensated for his bad behavior last week," the younger Bush said.

    Gore's advisors seemed reluctant to comment on the format and its effect on the vice president. Communications Director Mark Fabiani said the campaign's position was that Gore was in command of the issues from the start, and managed to expose weaknesses in the governor's legislative record in the Lone Star State.

    As for Gore's behavior, which many described as restrained, Fabiani said he was glad the vice president avoided the "distractions" of last week.

    Next week's town-hall format, however, suits Gore, in Fabiani's estimation. Bush and Gore will take audience questions next Tuesday in their last debate, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

    "Gov. Bush doesn't like that format," Fabiani said.

    One person who unexpectedly expressed nervousness about Wednesday's "table talk" format was moderator Lehrer. As he urged the audience to stay silent through the debate, Lehrer said: "This is the first time a conversation-type format has been used. I have to keep my wits about me, and I don't want you involved. Are we okay with that?"

    Not a lot of 'crazies' around

    As much as the debate commission has praised itself for its educational services, legions of third party activists have claimed otherwise, arguing that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan should have been granted positions on the stages in Winston-Salem and Boston with Bush and Gore.

    Some 5,000 demonstrators turned up in Boston last week, many of whom aligned themselves with Nader, and accused the commission of setting it standards for debate participation far too high for anyone other than Republicans or Democrats to participate.

    The Naderites also made a spirited showing last Thursday in the small, liberal arts college town of Danville, Kentucky, site of this year's sole vice presidential debate.

    Not so here in Winston-Salem. While many local police officers said early in the evening that they were braced for an onslaught of "crazies," demonstrations barely developed as the moon crossed the sky Wednesday night. Only 17 people stood at the main gate of the Wake Forest campus two hours prior to the debate, and four of those were Hare Krishnas lost in their regular chant.

    The Winston-Salem Journal reported Thursday morning that some 700 police officers had been deployed to the area around the Wake Forest campus to deal with possible disorder.

    An estimated 900 demonstrators reportedly filled up a nearby park, but they were kept at some distance from the debate venue.

    By the end of the evening, the paper said, "several" protesters made their way home. One arrest warrant had been issued for trespassing, the paper added, without confirming if that warrant had ever been served. Some people were questioned for selling political buttons, and a suspicious backpack was scrutinized.

    All in all, Winston-Salem assistant police chief David Walker told the paper that Wednesday was a "quiet" night.

     
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