WASHINGTON — In the pantheon of presidential politics, tonight's debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore will be one of the most important in modern history.
With polls showing the lead flip-flopping almost weekly, and with tens of millions of Americans expected to tune in, this first meeting between the two major-party candidates has an unusually high potential to turn the election toward one man or the other.
Because the moment is so pivotal, each candidate has a carefully crafted assignment: Mr. Bush is aiming to exude gravitas and demonstrate his command of the issues, and Mr. Gore is striving to avoid being too aggressive and to show some humanity.
The result may well be a debate that is kinder and gentler than presidential face-offs of the past. While that may appeal to prospective voters, it can also make the candidates' job of crystallizing their
differences much harder.
The race is so close that "they really have to differentiate themselves, but they can't go on the attack," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Their style "can be humor, it can be pathos, it can be emotional, but it can't be nasty."
In this time of general contentment, when threats to national security have abated and the economy seems indestructible, voters see little need for duke-it-out politics. Less attached to political parties, the electorate today simply takes less delight in partisan punches - and even registers its disgust over the rancor that seems to hold official Washington in its grasp.
Both candidates' demeanor in the run-up to tonight's event in Boston betrays the push they feel to "play nice."
Battling an image as the Count Dracula of go-for-the-jugular debaters - one solidified by a recent magazine-cover drawing of Gore with fangs - the vice president was quoted this weekend as saying, "I'm looking at this one differently." He said he'd focus on his own plans for the future more than anything else.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes acknowledges that Gore is a "world-class debater," but says the Texas governor will succeed with his authenticity. "We believe Governor Bush will more than hold his own by speaking from his heart," she said.
All in all, "If they're going to be highly negative so soon after [their TV appearances on] 'Oprah' and 'Regis' - if they're going to show two completely different sides of themselves - voters may say, 'You've got some explaining to do,' " says Rich Harwood, president of The Harwood Institute, a civic advocacy group in Bethesda, Md.
Debate history is rife with examples of candidates who didn't manage to strike the right balance between aggression and affability.
Most recently, US Senate hopeful Rick Lazio of New York came across to some voters as bullying his challenger, Hillary Rodham Clinton, during their debate. Indeed, "Lazio's mishap may be a lesson for Gore," says pollster Del Ali.
On the other side of the equation, 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was pilloried as passionless, after he gave a dry policy statement in response to a question about a hypothetical attack on his wife.
There will be some irony in tonight's encounter, observers say, in that both men will be trying to transcend the stiff, formal setting of the debate hall, with its podiums and otherwise empty stage.
Voters have been conditioned by years of up-close television coverage, and even more by the plethora of campaign appearances on talk shows this year, to expect candidates to mix talk of policy with personal anecdotes - "and not use the old-fashioned rhetoric they were using when they debated the Peloponnesian War," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.
"Part of the job description of the modern presidency is that he be able to transcend the era of shouting at the top of your lungs - and move into the era of microphones and close-ups," he adds.
Last week during final negotiations, Gore's team tried to get Bush's camp to agree that the candidates would use lapel microphones - presumably so Gore could wander from behind the podium in an effort to bust through the formality of the setting. The Bush team balked at the idea.
But in the same vein, Gore imported 13 so-called citizen advisers - people he met on the campaign trail - to his debate-prep camp.
Gore campaign aides say the novel approach is intended to help the vice president turn his sometimes-wonky responses into answers most folks can take to heart. But there's little doubt Gore will stick to issues - such as healthcare, Social Security, and education - because he's confident that he can beat Bush in this arena.
Bush, too, has an informal side to his formal preparations. He's been practicing in jeans and a T-shirt in an equipment building called the "gym" at his Texas ranch. He's expected to try to mix his Southwestern charm with a heavy dose of Oval-Office-size gravitas. He has recently renewed his emphasis on a $1.3 trillion tax cut that he characterizes as more fair than Gore's smaller tax-cut plan.
After tonight's encounter, the debates take a decidedly informal turn. The Oct. 11 event in Winston-Salem, N.C., will have candidates and moderator sitting at a table. On Oct. 17, there will be a town-meeting-style debate in St. Louis. This Thursday's vice-presidential debate in Danville, Ky., will also be in the roundtable format.
But tonight's event, being the first, has arguably more potential to alter the fundamentals of the race. "They need to look like they're having fun out there," says Mr. Ali, "not like they've got stomach problems."
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