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Carter Says Debates Could Be Decisive

Former president says the vice president's best chance of winning the election may be a major gaffe for GOP nominee Bush before a live national TV audience.


Jimmy Carter, drawing on his own experience running against President Ford in the 1976 campaign, said Monday that Vice President Al Gore's best chance of winning the White House may be for Republican nominee George W. Bush to stumble badly in their upcoming television debates.

Former President Carter, who was honored at the convention with a video that paid tribute to his presidency and to his public service since leaving the White House, recalled that Ford became confused and described the still-Communist satellite state of Poland as "a democracy."

The resulting questions about Ford's fitness may have tipped an extremely close race to the Democrats, Carter said during an interview.

Bush, Carter was suggesting, could make similar mistakes this year in what the former president thinks will become "a very close race." The impact of a Bush miscue could be even bigger because the Texas governor has almost no experience in national government or foreign policy.

Another critical element in Gore's prospects, Carter says, will be whether President Clinton is willing to fade from the stage.

Carter said Clinton needs to "stay completely in the background and let it be Al Gore's ballgame."

That will be hard for Clinton to do after a lifetime in politics, Carter said, but "I think that President Clinton will do what's right about it, and what's right about it is to let the focus be on Al Gore."

For his part, Gore needs to "separate himself" from Clinton's White House scandals, Carter added.

Carter, a devout Baptist who was deeply disturbed by Clinton's sexual trysts with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, said Clinton's "peccadilloes" undoubtedly raised a moral question that contributed to Democrats' insistence that Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove find a new location for the fund-raiser she had scheduled for the Playboy Mansion tonight.

Carter disclosed that, in 1976, after he grew nervous about his impending debates with Ford, actor Robert Redford brought to his home in Plains, Ga., a videotape of the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Redford sat on the floor with the Democratic standard-bearer and watched the tape several times. Carter said it taught him that appearances could be as important as substance in judging the winner of a political debate.

Carter said many who listened to the 1960 debate on the radio thought Nixon had won hands down. In the eyes of millions of television viewers, however, Nixon's visible nervousness and the perspiration rolling down his face made him the loser.

Acknowledging that Bush is perceived as the most likable of this year's presidential candidates, Carter said that during the debates Gore needs to be subtle and not come across as harsh when he attacks Bush and the Republican agenda.

Likability is a factor, Carter said, though "the Al Gore I know is likable, brilliant, concentrated, dedicated, a student of public service."

But, he added, Gore "gives the impression, sometimes, of being someone who is too focused on what he's doing."

Carter acknowledged that he has never had a close relationship with Clinton, but he has known Gore for 25 years. "Whenever I've had a problem I've gone to Al Gore. . . . He's been my entree in the administration. I have total confidence in his moral standards, his loyalty to his wife, his family values."

Asked about Clinton's legacy, Carter said it would be "mixed," that in 50 years he would be remembered as one of two American presidents who were impeached, but also one who had an "adequate" foreign policy and a strong economy with low inflation and high job creation.

Gore telephoned Carter with an invitation to come to the convention after watching the recent Republican National Convention in Philadelphia pay tribute to former Presidents Ford and Reagan. Carter, who skipped the 1996 Democratic convention, generally has declined to participate in partisan politics and said he will not campaign for Gore even though Ford has said he will campaign for Bush.

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