Countdown To Round One

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Beyond the spin and horse-race analysis, a generational milestone will unfold when George W. Bush and Al Gore meet for their initial face-to-face encounter in Boston next week.

For the first time, both major candidates in the presidential debate spotlight will be Baby Boomers, raised on television like the rest of their generation.

Prof. Mark Crispin Miller, a media analyst at New York University, said while neither Bush nor Gore is a master communicator a la Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, each candidate is a creature of TV.

"They may have their problems with the medium - Bush has problems with extemporaneous English and Gore has a kind of off-putting persona. But they're still both pros," Miller told

With the vice president and the Texas governor in a dead heat in the polls, the stakes for each are well set.

Bush must prove he's ready for prime-time and the Oval Office by displaying more than a pleasing personality. The Republican candidate must also give his malapropisms the night off.

Fall Debate Schedule

Tuesday, October 3rd
George W. Bush and Al Gore at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Traditional, two-podium format.

Thursday, October 5th
Running mates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Talk show format.

Wednesday, October 11th
Bush & Gore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Talk show format.

Tuesday, October 17th
Bush & Gore at Washington University in St. Louis. Town hall format.

All debates begin at 9 p.m. ET and run for 90-minutes. Jim Lehrer of PBS moderates the Bush-Gore debates. Bernard Shaw of CNN moderates the Cheney-Lieberman debate.

And despite his L.A. convention triumph, Democrat Gore still must show his independence from Mr. Clinton (the first Baby Boomer president), steer clear of those exaggerations that land him in trouble, and not appear as a pedantic rhetorical bully.

Still, Miller said, "We tend to forget all that stuff when we're confronted with a really successful performance. All the stuff we know rationally about whatever effort has gone into the spectacle will fly right out of your head if the spectacle is successful. That's one of the kind of scary things about TV."

Another debate milestone will be the mix of formats. Like snowflakes, no two Bush-Gore encounter will be alike this year. The first will feature a traditional podium setting; the second will have a talk-show style; the third will take on the form of a town hall meeting. That mix, said Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder, means neither candidate will have an automatic advantage.

"From the standpoit of viewers and voters, having three different formats gives us the opportunity to learn in different ways about the candidates - not only their positions, but also how they react," he told

Schroeder, author of the book Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, said the talk-show format is unprecedented, so the second encounter could prove the most compelling. But NYU's Miller doubted the broader format mix will yield a quantum leap in any real dialogue between Bush and Gore.

"This particular series of debates might be a bit more freewheeling than prior examples," said Miller. "But I do think that the whole televisual format, however they may fiddle with the details, tends to militate against anything terribly surprising, as does the whole televisual approach of both campaigns."

In fact, the third, town hall debate will be more limited than in 1996 and 1992. No spontaneous questions from the audience this time. Instead, questions will be submitted in advance to - and vetted by - moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. Schroeder said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by that change, since Bush and Gore each want to minimize any risks.

"The candidates are terrified of that town hall format, because they have no idea who's going to stand up and ask what kind of wacky question," he said.

Equally little is left to chance as Bush and Gore prepare for the debates. As the clock counts down to the first encounter, their campaign staffers are seeking to build for their candidates a "comfort zone" for the real thing. That prepping ranges
from poring over briefing books to dress rehearsals.

"By the time the candidate goes out there on stage for the live debate, they want that candidate to feel that he's already done this in some way and that this is not a new experience," said Schroeder.

Gore's mock debate opponent is Paul Begala, part of the Clinton campaign team that masterminded the defeat of Bush's father eight years ago.

"I'm a Democrat. I went to public schools. I have student loans. And now I've got to wrap my mind around a guy who's a perfectly decent guy, but who's reflexively against all that," said Begala of his stand-in role for the GOP nominee.

"One thing I like about Bush, we both have an affinity for the occasional smart-alecky line," he said, adding: "No one with any sense would underestimate George W. Bush."

Bush's sparring partner is Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. The Texas governor has joked that Gregg-as-Gore "often wins" their encounters.

"I told him, 'You're good,'" said Bush communications director Karen Hughes. Gregg looks nothing like Gore but has by all accounts nailed down the role.

Gregg "has managed to capture the condescending air that Gore uses in debates," Hughes said.

A videotape of a Bush-Gregg session last month mysteriously found its way to the office of Tom Dowey, the former Democratic congressman from New York who was slated to play the Bush stand-in for Gore. Downey removed himself from that role upon discovering the tape, which the Gore campaign turned over to the FBI. Begala then replaced Downey.

All this prepping aside, NYU's Miller said a genuine debate in Boston would be a four-way forum, not the two-person "ceremonial" show that viewers will see.

"If Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan could participate, there would be a greater likelihood of an actual argument," he said. "But as things stand now, it will be the usual battle of the soundbites."

Green Party hopeful Nader and Reform Party contender Buchanan will be debate no-shows, but not by their own choosing. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan, privately-funded sponsor of the forums, excluded both third-party candidates from the Boston event for failing to meet its criteria: on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win the election, and at least 15 percent in a cross-section of major national polls.

Barring a seismic shift in the polls, the Commission will also exclude Nader and Buchanan from the last two presidential debates when it meets again on Oct. 8. Both the consumer crusader and the conservative commentator have vociferously criticized the panel's requirements and continue to challenge them in the courts.

With only Bush and Gore on the same stage, Miller predicted the debates will be all too predictable.

"It'll be a kind of propaganda contest," he said. "It'll be a contest to see who can do the best job at stroking the viewer, who can be most successful at avoiding saying or doing anything that will push too many people's hot buttons. And that's a waste of time and money."

Propaganda or not, this fall's debate schedule is tight. Within two weeks, viewers will see four debates: three presidential and one vice presidential. That rapid-fire calendar, said Schroeder of Northeastern University, might generate the same "miniseries" feel of 1992, when the debate schedule was even tighter and thus "built the audience."

"I think the compression was actually a good thing in creating interest in the debates," he said of eight years ago, "because people felt that they were tuning in not just for a singular event, but for a true series of events that would cumulatively had some kind of effect."