The Magazine

The Not So Great Debate Debate

The Bush and Gore campaigns engage in a ritual squabble

Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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There is a don't-throw-me-into-the-briar-patch quality to statements like these. If members of Bush's staff really thought their boss was going to get clobbered in the debates, it is unlikely they'd say so. (Bush staffers almost never make unauthorized statements.) The Bush campaign is taking the debates seriously, but no one seems panicked. Bush will spar extensively with Sen. Judd Gregg, who will play the part of Gore in mock debates. Campaign advisers have read and reread a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows that offers insight into Gore's fundamental debating strategy (needle opponents until they lose control of themselves). They feel prepared. The belief in Austin is, Bush will turn out to be more skillful on stage than expected.

But even if he doesn't, there is an argument that Bush should debate early and often anyway. This was John McCain's advice to Bush during their first kiss-and-make-up meeting this spring in Pittsburgh. With each debate, McCain reasoned, Bush would grow more comfortable and fluid. And with so many debates to watch, public interest would rapidly diminish. Each debate would become less significant. Bush could bomb in one and make it up at the next.

This is roughly what happened during the primaries. During one of his first appearances with the other candidates, in Arizona, Bush came close to embarrassing himself. Steve Forbes, hardly a master of the extemporaneous jab, seemed to stump him with a simple question about oil exploration, a business Bush knows intimately. By the last debate, in California in March, Bush had improved. Some on Bush's staff believe it was his best performance. (It may have helped that John McCain appeared that night by remote from a St. Louis television studio.)

It was certainly more impressive than the performance Bush gave last December, when he decided to skip the early primary debates. One of those debates was sponsored in part by New Hampshire's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. "Bush claimed he couldn't attend because Laura was receiving an alumni award at Southern Methodist University," remembers Bernadette Malone Connolly, the paper's editorial page editor. "We wrote an editorial saying that real men can make schedule changes to accommodate presidential debates." The Bush campaign responded immediately. "They called us and said, 'How dare you? Mrs. Bush is very upset.' They feigned outrage."

In the end, it didn't matter. Relatively few people outside of New Hampshire even noticed. The other candidates were unable to turn Bush's no-show into a significant news story. This time, people in the rest of the country are paying attention. And Al Gore is a far better publicist than the rest of the GOP primary candidates combined.