APPLETON, WIS. — 'Hey, did he just say Vilosevic in there?" a reporter asked the other scribes around him, all writing furiously in the makeshift "filing center" after a campaign appearance by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"Yes," came the consensus, this journalist included.
However, it was also noted, Governor Bush did in his next sentence properly pronounce the surname of the just-toppled president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic. It was as if Bush wanted to tell everyone in the hall that he does indeed know the man's name.
The English language, plus the assorted foreign names a presidential candidate needs at the tip of his tongue, has not been Bush's best friend during the campaign.
And with four weeks to go before the Nov. 7 elections, many of Bush's permanent press entourage seem reduced to a band of gaffe detectors, pouncing on every Bush, Gore, and their ever-present bands of gaffe detectors squashed syllable or less-than-smooth response.
Bush's sometime inability to speak fluidly has become a bona fide campaign issue, as Americans assess his and Vice President Al Gore's qualities, credentials, and proposals in this most weighty of decisions: whom to select as the next leader of the free world.
Mr. Gore, for his part, makes Bush's life slightly easier by committing his own regular version of gaffery - a propensity to exaggerate and stylize the truth. And like Bush, Gore travels with his own gaffe detectors, a press corps ready to question every new assertion and fact-check every anecdote.
As the campaign becomes more and more concentrated on the battleground states, including Wisconsin, both camps are poking hard at their opponents' verbal proclivities. Bush and his aides now tar Gore with a "there he goes again" breeziness, questioning the veracity of virtually everything he says. A recent day's collection of press releases carried headlines such as "Gore aide exaggerates," "Gore campaign gets Texas facts wrong," and "Gore launches distortion tour."
This week, the Gore camp is launching an anti-Bush blitz, with surrogates such as vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman attacking Bush's record in Texas. The campaign is also putting out press releases and Web-site videos of Bush's less-euphonious moments, such as his tangled attempt on Friday to explain the numbers in his tax-cut plan.
Even Bush laughed at himself at the Florida appearance when he tried to run through how a single mom with two kids earning $22,000 would benefit from his proposals. "I was trying to do some fuzzy math," he quipped, playing off the phrase he used repeatedly to undermine Gore during their first debate last week.
Ultimately, the most important question is how the public responds to both candidates' gaffes, and whether that aspect of the campaign will affect a significant number of votes. In a race that remains neck and neck, every small shift in opinion matters.
The journalists traveling with Bush are well aware of their complicated role in shaping public opinion. The press isn't popular, especially among Republicans, who claim most major media outlets lean left. So when Bush says something wrong or less-than-coherent, and the press is perceived as pouncing too hard, there's a possibility that sympathy could boomerang back to Bush.
At the same time, journalists say, they would be remiss in not reporting the most noteworthy portions of a Bush appearance - including those moments that don't necessarily reflect well on him.
A case in point came at the same town-hall meeting in Appleton, Wis. The most extraordinary moment of that event took place toward the end, after many journalists had already filed their stories for the day.
A Bush supporter stood up and told the Texas governor that her business partner planned to vote for Gore, because she didn't want to rock the boat with the strong economy. She asked Bush what she should tell her friend.
He was, in essence, being asked to state the case for change in the White House - a central question in this campaign that many analysts, including Republicans, say Bush has yet to address adequately.
Bush made several attempts at a response. First, he said, "Tell her to keep an open mind." Then he said, "No, tell her governments don't create wealth." Attempt No. 3: "Here's what I'd tell her - fella's got a pretty good record and he's done in office what he said he would."
By then, Bush was visibly struggling, and tried to make light of it. "I'm groping for the right answer, you can tell," he said good-naturedly.
Then, in his final pass, he told the story of his relationship with Texas's late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat with whom Bush had an excellent working relationship. "You tell your friend," he said, "that I think I have the capacity to reach across the partisan line."
The scene was reminiscent of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's infamous interview in 1980 with TV broadcaster Roger Mudd, when the senator struggled to explain why he wanted to be president. Fortunately for Bush, the Appleton scene didn't make a lot of newspapers. And it didn't work as a television sound bite, because it transpired over several minutes.
One magazine reporter, mindful of how the scene could be presented most fairly to the public, suggested that it needed simply to be broadcast in real time, without commentary, C-Span style. Let the public decide for themselves, he said.
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