BOSTON -- When George W. Bush was speaking during the first presidential debate Tuesday night, millions of Americans got an eyeful of Al Gore. The vice president was grimacing, chuckling, snorting, and in one instance, rolling his eyes. Occasionally, he interrupted Bush, one of several debate rules that his emissaries had negotiated and that he violated.
Gore's gyrations were not the desperate reaction of a candidate so badly beaten that he felt it necessary to foul. Rather, Gore's mastery of facts and domination of the debate probably make him the winner on points. Although he wanted to avoid the frontal assaults of his attacks on Bill Bradley in their primary election debates, his reaction while Bush was talking manifested the real Al Gore.
Neither of the candidates are apt to sway the narrow but potentially decisive band of undecided voters with learned discourses on substantive issues. These Americans are shopping for a leader, and Gore's effort to impress them with vigorous non-verbal expressions actually undermine his debating prowess. Moreover, techniques used by the vice president to control the debate may have been counterproductive.
Bush did not do badly. Beyond post-debate spinning, the governor's key supporters were overjoyed that he committed no major gaffe, kept his grammatical errors to a handful and only occasionally was at a loss for words. His senior staff was ecstatic that Gore steered the debate to Bush's tax reductions and Social Security reform, proposals that play well with younger voters.
But there is no doubt the vice president did the steering. Moderator Jim Lehrer's control of the debate was quickly shattered by Gore's response to his first question. He did not really answer when Lehrer asked about Gore's past statements that Bush lacks the experience to be president. Instead, he delivered an opening statement, a debate form that both sides eliminated during their negotiations.
That was not the only time that Gore violated his own rules. He frequently pushed over the three and one-half minute limit for any subject (out-talking Bush by some eight minutes), interrupted frequently, and even asked Bush a question (after saying that the rules prohibited it).
Whether or not those tactics offend voters, there were immediate signs that Gore's principal debate gimmick is backfiring. He brought 13 ordinary people from battleground states to Florida as his "advisers" in debate preparation and then took them to Boston. (They "helped me prepare and we had a great time.") He duly recognized a few present at the debate, twice mentioning the highly publicized 79-year-old Winifred Skinner of Des Moines, Iowa, who says she needs to pick up cans from the roadside to pay for her prescriptions.
But SWR Worldwide, a bipartisan polling firm, says that instant debate reaction recorded mechanically by undecided voters on a second-by-second basis was lowest for Gore "when he drew upon personal stories." When Gore in his closing statement told the story of the can-collecting Iowa woman, "voters lost interest and rated this anecdote poorly."
Gore also continued his obsessive practice of personalizing everything in a way that is not attractive. In discussing foreign policy, the vice president noted that World War I began in the Balkans, adding: "My uncle was a victim of poison gas there." When Bush responded to Lehrer's question about real life challenges in government, he told of dealing with fire and floods in Texas (and praised the Clinton administration's disaster chief, James Lee Witt). "I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out," Gore responded (though it turned out that he did not go there with Witt).
Bush may have surpassed expectations, but he could have been sharper in rebutting Gore's numbers about tax cuts. Bush's astonishing desire for abortions to be "rare" echoed Bill Clinton's formulation. It is surprising that he had to improvise when asked what he would do about the failure of a major financial institution.
While Bush needs fine-tuning for next week's debate, Gore has more than enough arguments and debater's tricks. What he requires is self-restraint while Bush is talking -- and abandoning his gimmicks. That might not be the real Al Gore, but he still might try when he sits cheek by jowl with George W. Bush next Wednesday night at Wake Forest University.