When all is said and done, Debate Week may well wind up right where it started: with the presidential race locked in a virtual dead heat, the campaigns strategizing intensely over how to win over the remaining undecideds in a few battleground states.
So far, in this crucial week when the candidates are likely to get their largest television audience of the campaign, neither camp has scored a major knockout or committed a major gaffe.
Tonight, when the running mates go head to head in their only debate, their job will be to make the tops of their respective tickets look good. Given that both men - Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat, and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, the Republican - have reputations as serious, experienced leaders, neither faces a "gravitas" test, as former Vice President Dan Quayle did in 1988.
"Vice-presidential debates are in some sense a thankless task," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio. "If they screw up, they'll be blamed for it. If they succeed, credit goes to the guy at the top."
But in the process, he notes, each veep nominee can deliver valuable follow-ups to Tuesday night's presidential debate: Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) didn't directly make the case for change and Vice President Al Gore (D) didn't really make the case for continuity in their debate arguments, Professor Green argues.
Specifically, he says, Mr. Cheney could help Bush by reinforcing the facts of his plans on taxes and Social Security; Senator Lieberman can still help Gore with the character question.
How voters perceived Tuesday night's head-to-head talkfest between Bush and Gore, held at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, likely depended on expectations going into the debate.
Bush, the less experienced debater, needed to show that he's articulate and prepared to handle the many issues he'd face as president. He had much more to gain. Gore, who has a reputation for fact-filled debates and for being at times overly aggressive, had to come across as human and likable.
"I think both of them reinforced impressions going in," says Ross Baker of Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Gore was well informed, commanding but supercilious. There's a didactic quality to Gore that can be a little overbearing, such as his discussion of Yugoslavia. On the other hand, Bush didn't seem to fill the time that was allotted to him."
Overall, both candidates' camps bent over backwards to maintain a civil tone, in a campaign where the voters have made it clear they won't abide negativity. In the press room after the debate, where partisans for each candidate offered their explanations for why their man won, there were also three cheers for the process.
"I think it was a good night for both candidates because it was so issue-oriented," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Some pollsters, however, say that Bush didn't do enough on the issue front to bring home key states that are still in play - in particular, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Even though the race is still very close in national polls, the fundamentals of presidential campaigns favor Gore: The strong economy, more than any other issue, puts Gore in the driver's seat.
"I don't know if the Bush campaign understands the position they're in," says Dick Bennett, an independent pollster who runs the American Research Group. "He has to win more states, not more voters in the states he's already winning. He can't preach to the choir; he has to look for a different audience."
In particular, Mr. Bennett says, Bush needs to be appealing to women, who for now are tilting strongly for Gore. It is a rerun of the classic gender gap that delivered the presidency to Bill Clinton twice.
On the other hand, he says, although Gore does do better with women, he's not a sure thing there: "I don't think they're comfortable with Gore - otherwise he'd be way ahead."
On this crucial issue of appealing to women, the Gore camp indeed has to work hard to maintain the gender gap that works to its advantage. One of Bush's strongest issues is education, an issue that matters in particular to women, and his message of "compassionate conservatism" has put a softer edge on the Republican Party's image.
During the debate, Bush also played the abortion issue carefully when asked about the federal Food and Drug Administration's recent approval of the abortion pill RU-486. He chose to stress the areas in which American society stands on "common ground," rather than taking the hard-line anti-abortion position.
Yesterday, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan complained bitterly that Bush had "sold out" the anti-abortion movement in his answer on RU-486 - a sign that Bush may have succeeded in speaking to the middle in the debate.
Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society