||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Gore, Bush hope third debate is the charm
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two down, one to go.
The third and final presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush could well determine which one of them will be elected president of the United States just three weeks later.
Gore entered the series of debates with a reputation as a stronger debater, and some Democrats figured that the first debate, held in Boston, would end any remaining suspense about who would be elected.
But while many observers believe that Gore "won" the first debate by being more detailed and specific about policy, and Bush "won" the second by showing competence when talking about international policy, the Republican actually "won" both debates.
Critics of Bush portrayed him as a "deer in the headlights" in the first debate. But the governor was relaxed and authentic, and he seemed at ease on the same stage with the sitting vice president. Yes, he was stronger on some questions (energy, Social Security) than others (the crisis in Yugoslavia and abortion), but overall Bush did not embarrass himself.
Gore may have been more aggressive on issues, and he surely was more detailed. But the vice president also looked and sounded about as appealing as a case of the flu. His makeup was terrible, and his comments sounded canned. Gore has always had problems sounding natural, and his first debate performance made him look like a phony politician, not a sincere leader.
Coming out of that debate, both men had clear goals for the second. The vice president needed to show a different face to voters, one that was more personable and relaxed. Bush, on the other hand, needed to convince voters that he is smart enough and well-informed enough to be president. Both men, I believe, accomplished their goals.
Critics of Gore complain that he was too reticent during the second debate, too willing to agree with Bush. But the vice president didn't need to score points or draw contrasts as much as he needed to be personable and likeable. And he did that. Gore looked and sounded more natural than during the first debate. He seemed reasonable and relaxed.
While he wasn't overly aggressive during the debate -- and the setting made it difficult for either man to attack too much -- Gore was able to find an issue that Bush couldn't handle. The governor didn't do an effective job answering Gore's charges about health care in Texas, and that means that the Democrat has hit upon an issue that he may be able to use over the next few weeks.
Overall, however, Bush did well in the second debate. He handled international policy questions with ease, and he came across, as usual, as relaxed and self-confident.
So where do the first two debates leave Bush and Gore going into No. 3? Polls show the presidential race virtually even. If anyone has the edge, it may be Bush. This means that anything, including the third debate, could separate victory from defeat for the two candidates.
Gore must continue to press Bush on Texas, hoping to raise doubts about the governor's performance and priorities. And he must continue to be comparative on matters such as taxes, prescription drugs, Social Security, and abortion.
Gore must make the 2000 election about issues and policies, but he must also worry about style. If he is too heavy-handed, he could seem arrogant and mean-spirited, and like every other attacking politician.
Bush needs to continue to show self-confidence. Some voters still have doubt about his knowledge and overall capability, and he needs to demonstrate both. Of course, he also needs to hold his moderate ground, defending his "compassionate conservatism" and his positions on taxes, Social Security and the like.
More than anything else, however, Bush has to have answers for Gore's questions about Texas's health care, air quality and priorities.
One word of advice: Take everything about the post-debate analysis with a grain of salt. Many networks are turning to "focus groups" -- small groups of debate watchers -- for reaction. Their comments are almost always useless, since there is no way of knowing whether their views reflect the opinions of most Americans or truly undecided voters.
Also, remember that many reporters and pundits are looking for different than are many voters. It will take all of us a couple of days to know who "won" the last debate.
The final presidential debate could change the shape of the 2000 race. It could determine who's the front-runner and who is the underdog. But this race has had so many ups and downs that nobody can predict the outcome in November.