It's debate time

Posted: Sep 29, 2004 12:00 AM

George W. Bush once gave me some good advice -- which I never got the opportunity to use -- now I'd like to return the favor. Back when he picked me to be Secretary of Labor in 2001, the then president-elect sat me down in the Texas governor's mansion for a little heart-to-heart talk. "You know they're going to come after you in the Senate confirmation hearings," he said, fully aware that organized labor and other left-leaning groups vociferously opposed my nomination. "I know you can take care of yourself. You could probably come right back at them, and you might be tempted to do that," he added with a smile. "But here's my advice -- and you can take it or leave it: Don't get bogged down in winning the argument. Don't bite at their bait. I'm not telling you what to do," he said, leaning forward in his chair, "but it's what I'd do in your position."
I never got the chance to act on his advice, because I withdrew my name from consideration before confirmation hearings, after the press revealed I'd taken an illegal alien into my home a decade earlier.  But it was great advice nonetheless. And the president could do worse than follow his own admonition in the three televised debates that start Thursday night.

 Americans already know and, mostly, like the president. He enjoys a huge advantage among male voters, especially church-going white men, some 70 percent of whom support him, according to a recent Gallup poll. But he has also gained support among female voters, a must-win constituency for John Kerry if the Democrats have any hopes of regaining the White House. In 2000, women overall gave Al Gore an 11-point advantage in their votes, even though married women split their votes more evenly. But most recent polls show the gender gap all but disappearing in this election. Married women now favor the president by 11 points, according to an L.A. Times polls, and several recent polls show Kerry's advantage with women overall eroding. A Pew Center Research poll taken in mid-September, shows Kerry leading by only 5 points, down from 10 points in August, while a recent Gallup poll shows Kerry's lead among women dropping from 15 points to only 4 points, 50-46.

 Women will be watching the president carefully in the debates, not only for the policy positions he takes, but for the way he makes his case. Kerry's stern, almost dour, approach will aim at scaring core constituencies. He'll try to frighten moms into thinking they're less safe with George W. Bush in the White House, that Bush is trigger-happy, that he has a secret plan to draft their sons (and maybe even daughters).  The president must be reassuring without going on the offensive and lashing out at Kerry. Bush doesn't have to prove he's a tough guy. He has to resist the temptation to counterpunch when it would distract from the positive messages he wants to get out. These debates won't be scored on debaters' points; they will be one or lost by the man who best demonstrates steadfastness, trustworthiness, character and vision.

 Bush's objective should not be to best Kerry in an argument. In fact, the less the president engages in arguing with or directly attacking his opponent, the better off he'll be. If he derides or belittles Kerry, he'll end up looking petty -- especially to women viewers. Let Kerry be the in-your-face attacker, an unlikable bully. The president should remain presidential. That doesn't mean he shouldn't defend his record and the tough decisions he's been forced to make, but he should do so without acting defensive.

 The president goes into these debates in good position. He's ahead in the polls, which should give him the confidence he needs to perform well. Bush sometimes has the tendency to be too wary when he thinks he's in the enemy's lair. That's been the case in some of his press conferences and interviews. He seems most likely to mangle his words and syntax when he's trying his best to be careful.  If he can ignore his interlocutors' antagonism and not take his opponent's bait, he'll win these debates. More importantly, his performance could consign the gender gap to the dustbin of history.