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'The Debating Game'--Live From . . .


The third presidential debate airs tonight from St. Louis. At least 38 people are expected to watch.

To the surprise of the Commission on Presidential Debates, ratings have plunged each meeting, despite the progressively informal atmosphere. The first debate saw each man standing tall at a lectern; the next showed the duo relaxed and seated; and tonight's will have each candidate roaming a folksy town hall meeting dressed in overalls and playing banjos.

The commission feels its goal of informality was correct, but the execution may have been flawed. Accordingly, it will host a final series of "talks" ("debate" is too formal) between the candidates.

Below is a tentative schedule of the events and how they might unfold:

Oct. 22: Malibu. George W. Bush and Al Gore field questions while soaking in a hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Moderator-cabana boy Jim Lehrer lights the first joint and poses philosophical queries about life, the cosmos and how the Mars candy company gets those tiny Ms on M&Ms.

Oct. 24: Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. Bush and Gore undergo routine physical exams as they chat about the nation's health-care system. Moderator-male nurse Lehrer comments: "You gentlemen look presidential even in hospital gowns." However, the talks abruptly end when Bush refuses to provide a specimen for a drug test and Gore is found to have no pulse.

Oct. 26: The Colorado River. The candidates go white-water rafting together, accompanied by moderator-river guide Lehrer. The debate is mostly civil, but the vice president and Texas governor disagree sharply over whether to bed down overnight on the left or right bank of the river. Later, in an attempt to be really informal, the candidates reenact the campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles."

Oct. 27: AMC 57 Multiplex, Orlando, Fla. A la Siskel and Ebert, Bush and Gore take balcony seats during a screening of "Dr. T and the Women." (Gore puts on 40 pounds for the role.) When their arguments become too loud (Bush begins shouting, "I thought this was about Mr. T"), moderator-usher Lehrer ejects the pair from the theater.

Oct. 28: Grand Poobah Moose Lodge No. 293, Muskegon, Mich. Gore and Bush continue their debate at a Moose lodge while shooting pool and drinking beer. Moderator-bartender Lehrer fails to show up for the taping and is subsequently found wandering alone in the woods singing German beer songs. An instant poll afterward gives Gore points for superior billiard skills but gives Bush credit for holding steady after 21 long-neck beers.

Oct. 29: South Bronx, N.Y. To highlight their views on racial profiling, Gore and Bush appear in a police lineup. The witness initially fingers Bush as a purse snatcher, but after hearing Gore's tax cut proposal, decides it was the vice president. Meanwhile, moderator-victim Jim Lehrer is mugged outside the station house.

Oct. 30: Windy City Chop House, Chicago. At an intimate, candlelit dinner, Bush and Gore cozy up in a secluded booth. The meal goes smoothly until moderator-waiter Lehrer brings the check and Gore complains that Bush spent more on wine and appetizers than his entire budget for health care, education and Social Security.

Oct. 31: West Hollywood. It's Halloween, and the two candidates show great imagination in choosing their costumes. Bush wins plaudits for an outfit that makes him a dead ringer for a centrist Republican. But Gore claims the night as his with a startingly realistic get-up as a live human being. "It's alive! Alive!" says moderator-Dr. Frankenstein Lehrer.

Nov. 1: Above White Plains, N.Y. The candidates board a hot-air balloon. The two are positively giddy as Gore asks Bush to call him "Sparky" for the duration of the flight. Meanwhile, moderator-navigator Jim Lehrer inadvertently lets the balloon drift into Canadian airspace, where it is intercepted by a Royal Canadian Air Force jet that threatens to blow the vessel out of the sky. "Canada? Isn't that the 51st state?" asks Bush.

Nov. 2: The Krimp Residence, Harrisburg, Pa. The candidates show up in pajamas at the home of Fred and Marge Krimp, a family of undecided voters. After moderator-bedtime storyteller Lehrer delights the pair by reading "Goodnight Gorilla," Gore and Bush debate over who should get the top bunk.

Nov. 4: Outer space. In a last-ditch effort to boost ratings, Gore and Bush agree to a nonstop, 48-hour debate aboard the Mir space station. Viewership soars Nov. 5 when a "mysterious malfunction" threatens the craft. Shortly before radio contact is lost with moderator-Houston Control Lehrer, Gore tries to get in the last word: "Can I just say one more thing?"

Nov. 7: Moderator-backstabber Jim Lehrer is elected the 43rd president of the United States.

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