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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush, Gore Get 2nd Chance to Impress Viewers

October 11, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — It's the liar vs. the lightweight, the embellisher vs. the evader, the tall-tale man against the low-watt bulb.

Such is the caricature the two presidential campaigns are drawing as Al Gore--who's been accused by the GOP of "compulsive" fibbing--and George W. Bush--who Democrats say doesn't meet "the Dan Quayle standard" of competence--prepare to meet for their second presidential debate tonight.

With the war of words escalating--and the stakes rising as the polls tighten--both candidates arrive in Winston-Salem, N.C., for tonight's encounter with something to prove.

Analysts in both parties say that Bush's sometimes unsteady performance in that first debate did not erase the principal doubt voters hold about him: whether he is ready for the Oval Office. But Gore's sometimes grating performance--and questionable claims on issues ranging from his visits to Texas to whether he had criticized Bush's experience--appears to have exacerbated his principal problem with the electorate: doubts about both his likability and trustworthiness.

"The pressure is still on both of them," says Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "Bush quieted some doubts, but he's in a situation where he can raise them again by making some mistakes. And Gore better have his fact checker on hand to avoid any kind of embarrassment like he had in the first debate."

If anything, the pressure may now be greater on Gore. Although all surveys showed that most Americans believed Gore won the first debate, it is Bush who has gained the most from the showdown. Six national polls released Tuesday show Bush--who trailed in most surveys before the first debate--now holding a narrow 1 to 3 percentage point lead over Gore. A CBS poll gave Gore a 1 percentage point lead.

"We may even have a little bit of momentum for the first time since the convention," says Tom Cole, chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.

The format for tonight's debate at Wake Forest University will be less formal than the first. Although they stood behind lecterns at that debate, Bush and Gore will share a table tonight with moderator Jim Lehrer. Bush aides believe the more relaxed setting will favor their man, but its intimacy may make it more difficult for the Texan to challenge Gore's veracity as sharply as he has on the campaign trail. Both sides are promising a civil tone--though they made similar pledges before their acrimonious session last week. The candidates will meet for a final debate next Tuesday in St. Louis.

The polls' tilt toward Bush over the last week underscores the debates' ability to influence public opinion, especially among loosely committed voters, even when viewership is relatively low, as it was for the first Gore-Bush face-off.

Most media analysts and undecided voters interviewed by reporters initially called the debate a draw. But as in the past, the public verdict shifted as the press and voter reactions reinforced each other. Almost all national polls, to varying degrees, show movement toward Bush since the debate.

For Democrats, more ominous than the change in the horse race polls has been the deterioration in Gore's public image. In that first session, Gore drew positive reviews for his command of facts and aggressive presentation of his case. But he also exhumed doubts about his personality and character that his campaign believed it had buried at the Democratic National Convention.

Gore's position has eroded on two fronts. Apparently Gore's relentless style and his audible sighing when Bush spoke grated on many viewers: Polls this week showed that more voters, once again, consider the Texas governor more likable than the vice president. Gore himself recognized the problem. Asked in a Fox News interview Tuesday whether the "sighing and eye-rolling" represented a "major-league mistake," Gore laughed and answered: "Big time."

More significantly, the debate has reopened the "honesty gap" between the two contenders, polls show. Earlier this year, Bush generally led Gore when voters were asked which had the honesty and integrity they expected in a president. Gore closed that gap after the Democratic convention, where he reintroduced himself as a family man and "fighter" for "working families." Even a Republican advertising barrage in early September questioning Gore's credibility failed to budge those numbers, Cole, the RNC official, acknowledges.

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