Texas Gov. George W. Bush is a candidate with obvious political skills on the campaign trail, but when it comes to the art of debating, he is hardly a natural.
His strategy often appears aimed as much at survival on stage as at defeat of his rival. He arms himself with few tricks or gimmicks and is more effective parrying opponents than putting them on the defensive.
In his early Republican primary debates, he was betrayed by a nervous smile that was judged to be a smirk and by body language that smacked of cockiness rather than confidence. And in his first gubernatorial debate against Democrat Ann Richards in 1994, he couldn't even fill the short time allotted for a rebuttal to a question about casino gambling.
"Do you want to elaborate?" the moderator asked him.
"Not really," Bush replied.
All of which ought to make Vice President Al Gore nervous. Consistently underestimated by his opponents, Bush has more than survived his dozen encounters as a gubernatorial and presidential candidate. By setting expectations as low as possible, as his advisers have attempted this past week, a draw equals victory in the Bush calculation.
"He's a different kind of debater than Gore," said Gary Bauer, the conservative activist who sought the GOP nomination this year. "He's not a policy wonk. He's not going to bowl you over with detailed numbers about a federal program or whatever. But he's very good at giving the big picture. And he's got a pretty good sense of humor. I think he's a lot better than Gore is at talking in a way that average people can identify with."
As a debater, what Bush lacks most is consistency. His performance improved through the presidential primaries, but he was lackluster and unfocused in the early debates and some Republicans still cringe at the memory of those first encounters.
Gore's biggest debate hurdle is stylistic
By Ceci Connolly
It begins with a piercing blow disguised as a light aside.
"I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack," Al Gore said four years ago in the opening moments of his nationally televised debate with Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee and former NFL quarterback. "If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and fuzzy stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement."
"It's a deal," Kemp replied, unaware he had just been called a dumb jock. "I can't even pronounce it."
Once the trap has been set, the rest of the debate follows a tidy pattern: Turn unpleasant questions inside out, bring on a prop of some sort, and at every turn, repeat a key word or phrase until it rings in the ears of every listener. By the time the 90 minutes are over, Gore will have succeeded in stripping bare his opponent's greatest vulnerability -- a questionable character trait, a problematic policy idea or both.
In more than three dozen national debates over the past 12 years, Gore has developed a practiced, methodical debating technique that has earned him a reputation as one of the most formidable practitioners of rhetorical warfare in American politics today. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush takes the stage Tuesday for his first appearance with Gore, he will face someone used to defining, controlling and ultimately winning the debate.
But Gore's success is built on a ruthless go-for-the-jugular style, and that kind of aggressive approach may not necessarily be effective against Bush's folksy charms. Polls show voters this year to be strongly averse to anything that seems too negative or personal, and many students of presidential debates and some of his own supporters think the challenge for Gore may be to restrain his own instincts.
This is not the first time Gore's biggest hurdle has been stylistic rather than substantive.
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