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In Many Voters' Minds, Debate Fails in the Drama Department

Campaign: Billed as a key showdown in the closest presidential race in decades, the candidates fight to a draw, with neither landing a knockout punch.


GAHANNA, Ohio — Like most Americans, Gary Watson, a 29-year-old state government clerk, didn't watch Tuesday's televised debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Instead, he heard a quick summary from a radio newscast Wednesday--"something about how Bush and Gore didn't really change the reactions of people," he said.

Watson, a part-time minister at a mainly African American church, said he still wants to learn more about the two candidates' tax cut proposals. "All these taxes . . . they're killing everybody," he said.

Until then, though, he hasn't made up his mind. "I think I'll probably cue in the last couple of weeks and take a close look at them then."

In this leafy suburb of Columbus, a swing district in a closely contested state, voters were talking Wednesday about the Gore-Bush debate--and in the mysterious alchemy of public opinion, agreeing that it didn't change many minds either way.

The encounter was billed as a dramatic showdown in the closest presidential race in decades. It wasn't.

Neither candidate landed a knockout punch. A Gallup Poll conducted for CNN and USA Today found that 48% of voters thought Gore "won" the debate, against 41% for Bush. But 40% also said the debate made them more confident that Bush could handle the presidency, a gain for the Republican challenger.

And the polls found no significant shift on the bottom-line question: Which candidate do you plan to vote for? Instead, most instant polls found Gore holding the same narrow lead he did before the debate.

In other words, it was a tie.

"This wasn't a definitive debate," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Bush didn't put Gore away; Gore didn't put Bush away."

Moreover, only about 46.5 million people watched, according to Nielsen Media Research, fewer than the 60 million some had projected and far fewer than the record 80 million who watched then-President Carter debate Ronald Reagan in 1980. The audience was diminished by competition from the Fox network, which showed a science fiction drama, and NBC, which allowed affiliates to show a baseball playoff between the New York Yankees and Oakland A's.

When most voters don't watch a debate themselves, they learn about it only secondhand, from the news media or from friends. That means the full effect of the debate may only be felt over a week or more, as news coverage sinks in.

"We shouldn't call winners or losers immediately after a debate," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Those calls have been useless as a guide to what really matters. . . . What matters is what the press focuses on."

Sometimes, the media focus on "gaffes," like then-President Ford's declaration in 1976 that he didn't consider Poland to be dominated by the Soviet Union. But news coverage Wednesday was largely focused not on gaffes but on major issues such as tax cuts and prescription drug coverage for senior citizens. And most of the news coverage, like this article, called the debate a draw--"a low-scoring pitchers' duel," in the words of a CBS commentary.

"Normally, the press imposes a sports template and tends to create a winner," said media critic Tom Rosenstiel. "It's self-fulfilling punditry.

"What typically happens is that a slight impression on the night of the debate hardens into an overwhelming judgment within three or four days. If that pattern occurs in this case, then a slight edge for Gore today will be viewed a week from now as a Gore victory.

"But it's probably reversible. There's less trust in the pundits than there used to be."

In any case, Jamieson noted, voters, unlike reporters, don't watch debates in hopes of identifying a winner and a loser; they watch to learn more about the candidates.

"The electorate isn't looking for who won and who lost, or who was more in command or less in command," she said. "The electorate is trying to see whether each one is in sufficient command and to learn more about their positions. . . . Different voters want to learn about different issues. You almost have 13 little debates within the debate."

That was true among voters in Gahanna, a former mill town eight miles northeast of Columbus that has grown into a suburban enclave of 32,000, and in other communities as well.

At the Gahanna Grill on Granville Street, Jim Sevy, 62, sipped a cold beer and ribbed bartender Dottie Burns about her decision to watch Andy Griffith reruns instead of the debate. Sevy, the owner of several hearing-aid shops and beauty salons, said he had been leaning Republican but wanted to see how Bush would perform under pressure. "I thought, the kid is on his own now, let's see what he can do," he said. "Gore was supposed to blow him out of the water and he didn't." Now he's sure he'll vote for Bush, he said.

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