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Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He is providing Web-exclusive analysis for CNN allpolitics.com during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: Did they connect?

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A lot of what we know in the first hours after the first debate is what we knew in the hours, days, weeks, and months leading up to the first debate: Al Gore is a master of policy detail; George W. Bush has a more agreeable persona; the vice president has a grasp of international mattes that the Texas governor does not; Gov. Bush is particularly convincing on matter of education, where his passion informs his talk.

We also know, on matters atmospheric, that the vice president's audible dismissive sighs are as welcome as fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard, and that Gov. Bush's pursed-lips listening postures suggests a certain lack of inner confidence with the subject at hand.

Fine. Now for the really important question: did either of the candidates connect with an electorate that, in my view, is still essentially uninvolved with this election?

It's not that citizens don't care about health care, or education, or the state of the nation's values and morals. It's that, unlike past elections, there is no sense of urgency about what the government ought to do.

If surveys are any guide, most Americans are reasonably satisfied with the state of their health care and their kids' schools; and the dilemmas posed by people without health insurance, or poor kids in failing schools, don't admit of simple solutions. And for all the concerns about our moral decline, it's not precisely clear what a president could or should do about it.

So the question from the first debate remains: did either of these candidates connect with voters, millions of whom are either genuinely undecided or only loosely allied with a candidate? The instant polls, which should be taken with a ton of salt, suggest that Gore outpointed Bush, but that voters felt a lot more comfortable with Bush than they were before the debate.

What the polls can't measure, by definition, is what will go on today and tonight and tomorrow: the tens of thousands of conversations that will take place in offices, factories, coffee shops and beauty parlors, beneath the radar screens of the media.

Will citizens be telling each other that, "You know, Bush really does understand about schools and taxes"? Or, "Gore proved that Bush's numbers don't add up"? Will they be telling each other that Gore was condescending and arrogant? That Bush's criticism of Gore was just more of the same old politics Bush pledged to end?

But you know what? These may not be what Americans will be talking about at all. Maybe they will be telling each other that neither of these guys was talking about anything real; that it was another exercise in politi-speak that has nothing to do with how we live our lives; maybe they will be deciding that there is really no reason to pay much attention to this battle at all...at least, not until the World Series ends.

I don't think, to use the cliche, is that a whole lot of minds were changed by this first debate. And it's useful to remember that in some election years (1976, 1984, 1992), the later debates mattered more. But for me, the key questions are different: How many watched? Will the next debates attract a bigger or smaller audience? Has the public decided, at long last, that this is an election worth caring about?

 
EUROPE'S VIEW
Where do Bush and Gore stand on issues of importance to Europe? Launch our Interactive Guide.

POLLS
View the latest tracking poll or dig into our poll archives.

WHAT'S AT STAKE

VIDEO
Watch selected policy speeches and campaign commercials from the major presidential candidates.

WHERE THEY STAND
See where George W. Bush and Al Gore stand on the major issues.

THE STATES
Who are your elected officials? What is the past presidential vote and number of electoral votes in your state? What are the presidential primary results and exit polls? Find out with these state political and election facts.

ELECTION GUIDE
Get Election 2000 zip code searchable candidate biographies and other material for races for governor, Senate and House in our Election Guide.

FOLLOW THE MONEY
How much money have the candidates raised? Here are their quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission.

RACES
If you need to know who's up in 2000 and what seats are open, launch this quick guide.

WEB WHITE AND BLUE
Allpolitics.com is a partner in the Web White and Blue rolling cyber-debate, a daily online exchange among the major presidential candidates. Look for twice-daily updates Sunday through Friday until election day.


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Wednesday, October 4, 2000


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