WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- George W. Bush's handlers could hardly believe their good fortune when the second presidential debate at Wake Forest University ended. Not only had their candidate emerged unscathed from two rounds battling the fearsome Al Gore. The vice president had been unable to capitalize on the unexpectedly prolonged discussion of his supposed foreign policy specialty against the inexperienced governor of Texas.
How could this be? Not because Bush has suddenly mastered the techniques of debate. For one prominent Republican, watching Bush debate reminds him of watching his 12-month-old daughter try to walk ("never knowing when she might fall on her face"). Nor is he fully adept at delivering the responses crafted for him. Even at Wake Forest, he let Gore put him on the defensive.
But Gore has much bigger problems. Cut-and-slash techniques so successful for him in 24 previous debates translated into condescension and arrogance in the first debate at Boston. Careful not to offend last week, the vice president seemed less comfortable in his skin than the governor. In the closest election since 1960 going into the final debate in St. Louis Tuesday, it's advantage Bush.
That Bush is a long way from being a champion debater is demonstrated by the way he has countered the ferocious assault on his tax cut plan. After making no defense at all in Boston, he was prepped for Wake Forest on how to turn back Gore's claims about tax advantages won by the richest 1 percent of Americans: to say that top income earners paid one-third of the taxes but received only one-fifth of his tax cut.
Former Federal Reserve Gov. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's chief economic adviser, and Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, a tax expert and Bush surrogate, prowled the media room like expectant mothers anticipating their candidate's explanation. But what is talked about in these debates depends largely on moderator Jim Lehrer, who chose to devote the first 42 minutes to foreign policy.
It was Gore who forced the tax issue with his tax cuts-for-the-rich mantra, after which Bush allowed Lindsey and Portman to sigh in relief by responding quickly and not very forcefully with their reply. But Lehrer's preoccupation with issues not on the table in this campaign proved a boon for Bush and a surprise for Gore. By praising President Clinton's policies in East Timor and Nigeria and attacking his "nation-building" in Somalia and Haiti, Bush was not the mindless "bungler" portrayed in Democratic campaign ads.
That delighted the governor's advisers, even if it gave a free pass to the past eight years of soggy world leadership. For the other non-foreign policy half of the debate, Bush seldom took the offensive. "That may not satisfy you and me," the normally pugnacious Michigan Gov. John Engler told me immediately after the debate, "but it's what the swing voters want."
It also seemed to leave Gore at bay. Instructed to ease up after Boston, he was not the old Al Gore. Rather, he looked a little like the pallid Bob Dole of 1996, who was shorn of the wicked sarcastic humor that was his trademark. Democratic politicians who had upbraided Gore for his unpleasant mien in Debate No. 1 now complained that he was without a message in Debate No. 2.
Gore did take the offensive after the long foreign policy seminar, with the new focus of his campaign: Bush's record as governor of Texas. When Gore hammered at the state's 49th or 50th ranking for health care for women, children and families, Bush had no response. The reasonable answer is given by the governor's aides: the flow of new Texans into the state exacerbates a problem caused by years of inattention and alleviated by progress during the Bush administration. Failure to say just that last week demonstrates George W. is no champion debater.
But he doesn't have to be. Bush's high command predicts that the vice president will to try to uncoil a knockout punch in St. Louis this week. The response from Gore's high command is that the third debate will change nothing and that the remaining three weeks of the campaign will determine where those mysterious uncommitted American voters end up.