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THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE | HOWARD ROSENBERG

Lessons of First Meeting Provide Candidates With a Lose/Win Strategy

October 12, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Whew! Getting to be president is not easy. I have to be honest here. I was skeptical about televised debates being a valid indicator of a candidate's qualifications to be president, but I've come around.

So let me see if I have this right.

Most polls said that a majority of Americans thought that Al Gore won the first televised debate, but they liked George W. Bush better. As Neil Cavuto noted on the Fox News Channel on Wednesday afternoon, at issue with most voters is not whether Gore "does have the knowledge here. What's at issue is, does he shove that in people's faces." So Cavuto wondered, were voters saying they "like the other guy better, even though he doesn't seem as smart?"

In the aftermath of the Oct. 3 debate, most voters apparently believed that, while winning, Gore was too aggressive, too smug, too superior. Thus, even though being aggressive helped win him the debate, being aggressive also cost him the popularity contest. And even though, based on the polls, most Americans saw the debate as showing that Gore was superior, he blew it by smugly appearing to know that he was superior. In other words, Gore was being what Americans just cannot tolerate.

A smarty-pants.

So the task facing Gore on Wednesday night was to aggressively win the debate while appearing passive and unaware that he was winning the debate.

In other words, he had to be superior while giving America the impression he was feeling inferior. He had to thoroughly demolish Bush while impersonating Don Knotts.

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The task for Bush was simpler. He had to win the debate by appearing to lose the debate. He had to control the debate while letting Gore appear to be overbearing. He had to be superior by seeming to be inferior and not letting on that he knew he was superior.

Bush had to call attention to Gore's misstatements without falling into the trap of being a smarty-pants himself.

As CNN's Bill Schneider explained Wednesday in advance of the debate, voters wanted to know the following: "Is Gore a straight-talker, and can Bush talk straight?"

Was this perilous or what?

Gore would be walking a tightrope as straight-talker, for his straight-talking again could make him unlikable. And Bush had the awesome assignment of talking straight without giving the appearance that he knew he was talking straight.

That's because what Americans dislike almost as much as a smarty-pants is a straighty-pants.

So there it was: The candidate that met the most of his debate goals would be best suited to be president.

All right! For a minute there, I thought that Wednesday night would be a waste of time.

*

Who won?

Gore was ahead after three minutes, but Bush stormed back by appearing not to storm back, a shrewd strategy given the electorate's distaste for a stormy-pants.

Both men appeared to be well-prepared, going against the advice of someone on CNN who said they needed to "prepare like crazy to come off looking like they didn't prepare at all."

Obvious almost immediately was the terrible blunder Gore made in wearing a tie that was bright blue, leaving the impression that he was showing off. He was unaware, it seemed, that there was only one thing Americans dislike more than a smarty-pants.

A showy-pants.

Yet Gore's early passivity was paying off. He avoided the trap of being overbearing by being under-bearing, making Bush seem in command and the aggressor. But then Gore overplayed his hand. He not only appeared to be losing the debate--a clever strategy, as any pundit would affirm--he was losing the debate.

Appearing to snatch defeat from the mouth of victory, however, Bush at one point went on a blinking frenzy. How could he have made such a mistake?

Everyone hates a blinky-pants.

Even before that happened, though, Gore appeared to be winning because he was losing. Then, two-thirds of the way through the debate, he struck hard, pouring on the statistics while hammering Bush on gay rights as well as hate crime legislation and health care in the governor's home state of Texas. Not content with being presidential, Gore now was flaunting it.

Taken by surprise, Bush cleverly gave the impression that he was rattled, making Gore seem like a bully. Gore had deceptively lulled Bush into a false sense of security by earlier being docile, only to launch a tenacious counterattack that caught his opponent unawares.

But what a critical misstep it was. You'd think that Gore would have known, that his advisors would have told him, that Tipper would have told him.

No one--absolutely no one in the U.S.--likes a sneaky-pants.

On the other hand, by losing this debate, Gore probably won.

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Howard Rosenberg can be reached by e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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