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Novak Syndicated columnist Robert Novak is co-host of CNN's "Evans Novak, Hunt & Shields," as well as "Crossfire." He is providing exclusive convention analysis for CNN.com.

Robert Novak: Big win eludes Gore in final presidential debate

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore was clearly looking for a home run in Tuesday night's final presidential debate against his Republican rival George W. Bush. He didn't get it. And although he did knock out an extra base hit, he doesn't get credit for it because of his pyrotechnics.

It's as though a batter kept slugging hits all the way to the wall, but before and after danced around home plate. In baseball, the hits would count anyway. But this isn't baseball. It is politics, where style is as important -- perhaps more important -- than substance.

If the first of the three presidential debates was about whether Bush could stand up to so feared a debater as his Democratic opponent, the third debate was all about whether the vice president could compensate for his disappointing performance in the first two contests.

Gore appeared to win the first debate on points, but was the real loser thanks to his on-camera behavior: sighing, grimacing, rolling his eyes when Bush was talking. Widely criticized for his condescension, Gore restrained himself to such a level of passivity in the second debate that Bush actually won it on points.

So, with Gore falling in the polls (and in critical battleground states), the third debate was crucial for the vice president's campaign. He had to restore his aggressiveness while not reverting to his obnoxious behavior of the first debate.

He was only partially successful. In resuming the offensive, and again winning easily on debater's points, he did manage to keep a straight face while Bush was speaking -- though with obvious effort.

But the sight of the vice president in full battle array (or "Gore being Gore" as his advisers put it) is not a pleasant one. He interrupted, tried always to get the last word, spoke when he wasn't supposed to, repeatedly broke the self-imposed debate rules -- especially by asking Bush questions -- and even walked into Bush's space at one point to menace him.

Whatever such conduct has to do with being president of the United States, it has a lot to do with the "swing" voters who will decide this election. Most people who really care about the issues of taxation, government spending, as well as Social Security and Medicare have made up their minds.

The floating vote -- probably between 10 percent and 15 percent of the electorate -- care more about character. They may not have been all that pleased with Gore rampaging around the stage in St. Louis.

But Gore did shove Bush off balance. Anybody would be off balance trying to deal with "Gore being Gore." Analysts who complained that Bush's droll wit and cool demeanor was gone in the third debate might wonder how they would handle Gore wreaking havoc.

The early polls indicate no significant movement of support in either direction. If that trend holds, the debate constitutes a defeat for Gore. His hope is that the post-debate commentators will convince American voters that he really dealt Bush a serious blow.

 
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 18, 2000


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