WASHINGTON — Two questions stick out as we head into the final stretch: What's going to tip this race in one direction or the other? And wouldn't it be sad if it's something trivial - like a gaffe in the upcoming two debates - that determines the outcome of this neck and neck battle?
The first debate moved deeply into substance: tax cuts, education, energy, foreign affairs, and much more. Lots of details.
One poll found that the TV audience was heavily women - that a lot of bored men had switched over to watching the ball game. That's sad, too.
Actually, the overall TV audience was small, apparently a record low for presidential debates. It may well presage the lowest presidential vote since it has been recorded. Again, we're talking about something sad. No, it's more than that. The American people should be ashamed of themselves.
Back to that first debate. I've been watching them since 1960, and I say unequivocally that this was one of the best. I know the complaint through the years - that these really are not debates but simply performances by candidates who are reciting prepared speeches.
The rules in the Boston debate precluded much give and take between the participants. Yet I score the encounter high simply because after it was over, the watchers had learned substantive differences between the men on where they stood on the issues. It was George W. Bush who more than once underscored the philosophical difference that separates him from his opponent. Al Gore's approach, he maintained, is to use government to help people while he, Mr. Bush, seeks as much as possible to help people do for themselves. And Mr. Gore's depiction of his plan for what he intends to do if he becomes president certainly embraced the philosophy of leaning heavily on government.
The debate made it clear that the voter now has a choice between two men who see governing in distinctly different ways (more than once Bush would say, "It's a difference in our opinions"). Bush may not be an old-time conservative but, relatively speaking, he is the conservative candidate. For example, he says he'll appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court. And while no Democrat likes to be called a "liberal" anymore, Gore definitely is the liberal-minded candidate in this election.
This tight race has been compared to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy contest, which was tight from the first debate all the way through the election. In the end Kennedy won by a hair.
Or did he win? I was writing for the Monitor out of Illinois at the time and was close enough to the voting there to see the evidence of the Democrats stealing the election for Kennedy in that state. But there was evidence, too, that Nixon backers had stolen the election for him in Texas.
No doubt about it. That race was close. And it was also hotly contested. The passions of voters ran high, particularly on the question of whether a Roman Catholic should become president.
This electorate has from the very beginning been less than excited over who will be our next president. Sure, the Gore-Bradley and Bush-McCain contests stirred up considerable interest, but only briefly.
For the most part, the American people are yawning over this election. Is it because the economy is so strong that the voters think good times will roll no matter which man becomes president? Or is it because people have become so disillusioned over what's been going on in Washington that they've decided to drop out from participating in politics? I do talk to people who have become that cynical.
But I'm hoping this all will change in these final days before the election. Indeed, pollster Ed Goeas told us at a Monitor breakfast that he had found some interest intensifying among Republican voters after they had viewed the Boston debate. But most reports I get show a populace that continues to be less than fully interested in how this contest turns out.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society