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Outcome of Election May Turn on Debates

Campaign: With so many swing voters, these televised sessions could be most important of last 40 years.


With their race stubbornly close, George W. Bush and Al Gore enter a series of crucial debates this week, each trying to shoulder past his rival while easing doubts about his own vulnerabilities.

Bush may be easygoing and friendly, but does the Texas governor have the heft to fill the president's Oval Office chair?

Vice President Gore may be smart and experienced, but is he grounded in a set of principles that go beyond the tactical maneuvers needed to win the White House?

Tuesday night, for 90 minutes on a stage in Boston, the two presidential rivals will seek to answer those questions and others they have tried to anticipate in hours of preparations and debate rehearsals, which continued this weekend at their respective retreats.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Election debates--A graphic that ran Oct. 8 incorrectly stated that Ross Perot took part in the 1996 presidential debates. Perot did not participate in debates that year.

While debates have been an important part of presidential campaigning for the last 40 years, this year's installments could be even more significant, given the candidates' neck-and-neck standing in national surveys and the fact that many voters seem wobbly in their commitments.

"Many Americans are still ambivalent about both Bush and Gore, and this will be the first opportunity for a sustained look side-by-side at these two guys," said Darrell West, a Brown University expert on political communications.

With the two candidates trading a slim lead in national polls, West said, "the debates this time could be more important than ever before."

The three meetings between Democrat Gore and Republican Bush, starting at the University of Massachusetts and concluding two weeks later in St. Louis, appear to have a ready audience. (The vice presidential hopefuls will debate once, Thursday night in Kentucky.)

Of those surveyed in a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 79% said it was important for Bush and Gore to debate. Of those, three out of four said the candidates' performance would be important in deciding which nominee to support.

Further elevating the stakes, a large chunk of voters say they could very well change their minds between now and Nov. 7, election day.

Although Gore is leading in most battleground states--giving him the edge in the race to win the 270 electoral votes needed to take the White House--nonpartisan pollster Andrew Kohut said his surveys show that fully one-third of voters are either undecided or willing to switch candidates. 'The swing voters remain pretty much up in the air," said Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "It's anyone's race."

Which is why the debates could prove to be pivotal.

For all the practice drills, hand wringing and post-debate spin, historians say it is unclear whether a presidential debate ever decisively altered the outcome of an election. The two possible instances, however, occurred in races similar to this one--tight contests with see-sawing leads.

The first was the 1960 race between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. When the debate started, Republican Nixon was a mere point ahead in a Gallup national poll. After the vice president's famously sweaty performance, Democrat Kennedy grabbed a slight lead and held on through three more debates to eke out a narrow victory.

Twenty years later, President Carter led former California Gov. Ronald Reagan by a few points in a Gallup poll before their sole debate. Reagan turned in a solid performance and the polls flipped overnight, with the Republican romping to the White House a week later.

In both cases, political analysts say, the challengers succeeded on a personal level in reinforcing their positive characteristics while dispelling any lingering concerns among voters.

"Kennedy came across as cool and capable. Reagan came across as confident and not too much of an extremist," Kohut said. "We don't remember" issues.

Indeed, the result of those debates and many more suggest how personality and performance can often trump a mastery of policy.

"Issues are not what's unique about presidential debates," said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who has written an authoritative history on the subject. "You can get information about issues from a lot of different sources." What makes debates the marquee events of the fall campaign, he said, is the way they "bust through the veneer of control that the candidates and their handlers impose on the process."

"It allows you to check out the personal dimensions of a candidate, the way you would check out anybody interviewing for a job," Schroeder said. "You want to see how they respond under enormous pressure: Do they maintain their cool? Do they get rattled?"

Democrat Michael S. Dukakis proved the importance of the human element. In 1988, he appeared a bit too collected when asked if he would oppose the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, was raped and murdered. His bland demurral sealed negative impressions of the diffident Massachusetts governor and cemented Dukakis' defeat three weeks later.

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