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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Debate Allays Some Voters' Fears That Bush Isn't Ready

October 13, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

LANGHORNE, Pa. — How optimistic were Republicans after Wednesday's second debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore?

As Bush flew over Washington on Thursday morning, en route from North Carolina to a campaign stop in this Philadelphia suburb, his pilot pointed out the capital below and announced over the intercom: "Governor, that is your future home on the left-hand side of the plane."

That's more than a bit premature: Polls still show Gore and Bush tied in the tightest race in at least 20 years. But, in both parties, there was a fledgling consensus that Bush may have regained the initiative in the seesaw contest by dealing with his central problem more effectively than Gore did in the second debate.

Polls suggested Gore made only limited progress in resolving voter concerns about his honesty and veracity. But by standing toe-to-toe with Gore, especially during the 41-minute opening section of the debate on foreign policy, Bush came closer to convincing voters that he has the skills and intellect for the Oval Office, overnight polls suggested.

"Bush is now pretty close to successfully completing what John F. Kennedy did with Richard Nixon, what Jimmy Carter did with Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan did with Jimmy Carter," says Tom Cole, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. "Until he got up to the plate and faced Gore, people were going to wonder if he was ready. Now they are saying they are both competent."

If anything, the crisis in the Middle East heightened the importance for Bush of passing the credibility test, analysts say. By rushing back to Washington, Gore sought to underscore his strongest suit: the general agreement in the electorate that he is prepared to be president. The Mideast tension intensifies the pressure on Bush to cross that same threshold because it may remind wavering voters that, even in this period of peace and prosperity, in picking a president they are not just choosing which man they would rather watch on the nightly news for four years.

In a backhanded way, even the Gore campaign seemed to acknowledge that Bush bolstered his credibility. After pointedly disparaging Bush in the days leading into the debate as a "bumbler" unready for the White House, Democrats shifted their focus toward attacking the Republican's record in Texas.

Partly that reflects their conviction that one of Gore's most effective arguments is to challenge Bush's Texas performance on the environment, health care and other issues, as he did late in the debate. But it may also reflect a grudging acknowledgment in Democratic circles that, absent a major mistake, Bush crossed an important threshold with voters Wednesday night.

"It was a very important night for Bush," said one senior Democratic consultant who asked not to be identified. "In a lot of respects this is like the Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, when Reagan had to dismiss a burden of doubt [about his readiness], which he did. And I think Bush dismissed his burden pretty effectively last night. . . . My instinct is that Gore has to do something to change the dynamic or else he is in big trouble."

After the surprising twists in public reaction following the first debate--when overnight polls gave the victory to Gore but support shifted to Bush in the race itself--few analysts were willing to confidently predict the lasting effect of this second encounter, especially with the turmoil in the Middle East dominating the headlines and distracting attention from the debate.

But one top Democratic congressional aide reflected a widespread view in the party when he said Democrats had abandoned the hope that Gore would knock out Bush in the debates. Now, he said, the best Gore may be able to hope for is to emerge even from the three encounters--and find another way to beat Bush in the three weeks left after next week's final debate in St. Louis.

Republicans were cheered most that Bush delivered a smoother and generally more confident performance than during the first session in Boston last week. On Wednesday, Bush survived a lengthy discussion of foreign affairs without any major stumble, though former Russian leader Victor Chernomyrdin threatened to sue Bush for alleged damage to his reputation when he suggested in the debate that the former prime minister diverted international loans to his own use.

The overall performance appears to have at least eased doubts about Bush's capacity to serve as president. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted immediately after the debate, 70% of respondents said they believe Bush has the intelligence and knowledge for the Oval Office.

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