ST. LOUIS -- With the election in danger of slipping away, Al Gore's backers gave him the same advice for the third and final presidential debate at Washington University: be yourself. Indeed, Al Gore was Al Gore Tuesday night. But that made George W. Bush's coterie here quite as happy as the vice president's.
The undiluted Gore is formidable. When not self-restrained, the vice president can dispose of Gov. Bush seven nights out of seven. But at what cost? Swing voters who cannot make up their minds about what to do Nov. 7 may not take kindly to a candidate who interrupts, breaks the rules, insists on the last word and tries to bully his opponent.
Gore being Gore can hurt his own candidacy. His recital of voter-friendly new government programs matched Bill Clinton's campaign virtuosity, but not his likability. Gore's forcefulness risked the remnant of undecided voters who look for character rather than issues.
Too hot in the first debate and too cold in the second, Gore had a roadmap of do's and don'ts for St. Louis. He would not grimace and sigh while Bush had the floor, would not tell little anecdotes about people he met on the campaign, and -- if at all possible -- would not embellish or exaggerate. He would resume populist business-baiting, promise repeatedly to "fight for you," and direct a steady onslaught against Bush.
Gore did not follow through with plans for a frontal assault on Bush's record as governor of Texas. Otherwise, his roadmap was followed faithfully, with Gore beating his chest against predatory capitalists ("I have never been afraid to take on the big drug companies.")
Bush was not surprised. Preparing for the debate, the Republican candidate told close associates that he expected the vice president to pull a stunt early in the debate. In fact, Gore crossed the stage to confront Bush, a menacing gesture so unusual that it evoked gasps and embarrassed laughter in the media center.
Bush staved off the hovering Gore with a shrug. But he was kept off balance by the vice president's maneuvers. Gore exceeded time limits, spoke out of turn, and violated rules set by the campaigns by questioning his opponent and seeking dialogue with town meeting participants.
This was not ideal for Bush. Few of the questions from these supposedly undecided voters betrayed conservative roots. He had difficulty coping with inside-the-Beltway landmines laid by the vice president. The "bipartisan" patients' bill of rights that Gore pressed Bush to support is actually Rep. John Dingell's Democratic measure leavened by some Republican backers, but Bush did not know enough about Washington to say that.
Indeed, Bush seldom countered Gore's fast-stepping -- as in seeking to exploit the Middle East crisis. After announcing in June that he was effectively terminating his duties as vice president to run for the White House, he went back to Washington last week to lend his unneeded presence to meetings on the Middle East crisis. In the debate, he made it sound like a sacrifice that "I suspended campaigning for two days or parts of two days to go back and participate in the meetings that charted the president's summit meeting."
When Gore piously denied plans for massive government spending, Bush did not utilize the report (given him before the debate) by the genuinely bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget that Gore's economic program would "produce the largest spending increases since LBJ and the Great Society." When Gore boosted his estate tax cut , Bush did not cite the IRS calculation (available to the governor's staff) that it would benefit only 902 taxpayers.
So, George W. Bush is no great debater. But he reached a level Tuesday night surpassing Gore's relentless style when questioner Leo Anderson asked whether he was proud that Texas leads the nation in executions. "If you think I was proud of it," Bush replied, "I think you misread me ... I'm proud of the fact that violent crime is down in the state of Texas. I'm proud of the fact that we hold people accountable. But I'm not proud of my record, sir, I'm not." Will that impress swing voters more than Gore being Gore?