The last debate is now critical in drum-tight Bush-Gore race

Going into tonight's bout, Bush carries the momentum, Gore the edge in electoral votes.

Tonight's debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore is the final blockbuster event of the 2000 campaign.

It's got several new twists on the previous debates, making the stakes perhaps loftier than ever. It's the last time millions will watch the candidates at one time.

Both need solid performances - or at least to avoid major gaffes. Mr. Bush needs to solidify his recent momentum to start to overtake Mr. Gore in the all-important electoral college count. Gore needs to spark a turnaround in his recently flagging campaign.

They'll have to do it in a new environment.

* It's the first time they'll likely tackle the weighty issues of a stock-market wobble and all-out Middle East violence, including a terrorist attack on a US Navy ship.

* Since randomly selected voters ask the questions, there's a new unpredictability. History hints the queries will be simpler and more emotion-driven - and that questioners will expect straightforward answers devoid of vitriol.

* The expectations game has changed. Once the champion debater, Gore is now the virtual underdog. Bush has proven competence, now he has to seem fully presidential.

The irony of the debates so far, says independent pollster Del Ali, is that although "Bush has done what he wanted to do" - start to prove he's got sufficient intellectual heft - "Gore still appears to be ahead in the electoral-college count." In other words, despite Bush's gains, the playing field may still be level.

The potential impact on the race of the recent roilings of the US stock market and the Middle East remains unclear.

Two schools of thought exist.

In one, the overseas uncertainties could help Gore, because at times of crisis Americans tend to rally around their leaders. Case in point: During the 1980 primary season, after Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts made semi-critical remarks about President Carter's handling of Iranians holding 52 Americans hostage, Democrats flocked back to Mr. Carter.

The other prevailing theory holds that stock-market tumbles and other uncertainties make voters jittery - and prone to toss out the incumbent party. Pollsters call it the "right-direction/wrong-direction index." When people say the nation is headed in the wrong direction, they tend to vote for challengers. The two schools could ultimately cancel each other out, making it "a net gain for nobody," quips Mr. Ali.

Yet in tonight's debate, analysts say, both candidates should handle the crisis with care. Bush can't afford to be too critical of the administration, but should continue sketching out his foreign-policy vision. Gore shouldn't boast of the administration's efforts - including President Clinton's role in a Mideast summit in Egypt - lest he get blamed if they fail.

Another uncertainty will be the voters' questions. The Commission on Presidential Debates is choosing the roughly 100 participants, many of whom are expected to be minorities. In a twist on past town-hall debates, questioners will have to submit their queries to moderator Jim Lehrer, who will choose which ones are used. "It's an attempt by the campaigns to add another layer of protection," says Alan Schroeder, a debate expert at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's protection against spontaneity."

Indeed, past town-hall debates have featured surprise questions that hurt candidates. In 1992, a citizen questioner repeatedly asked President Bush how he, as a member of the upper class, could empathize with the middle class on the issue of the national debt. Mr. Bush's answer was unsatisfying to many viewers, and Governor Clinton followed up with a signature episode of empathy.

Whatever the topics, tonight's questions will likely be markedly different than Mr. Lehrer's in the first debates. They "won't be worded to try to trip up somebody - but designed to elicit a real, straightforward answer," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. They'll also tend to be "more emotional, and less factual."

Because the questions will come from average voters, "This will be the most credible debate of all," says Mr. Luntz. That's because voters want a "non-pundit-driven, nonnegative discussion of issues."

Both candidates bring strengths and weaknesses to such a format. Gore has done scores of town meetings and is comfortable in this forum. Bush has done relatively few, but his folksiness may help him close the experience gap.

The stakes are high. Ever since the first debate, polls have showed Bush pulling slightly ahead of Gore. But most state-by-state analyses of the electoral-college map show Gore still ahead. If Bush can add to his momentum tonight, he may well flip the electoral count. If Gore can add sparkle to his campaign, he may well hold his state-by-state advantage.

Many agree more pressure is on Gore. He's expected to criticize Bush's Texas record but must be delicate. "His tone needs to be low-key and forceful," says Gore consultant Sam Popkin. In previous debates, Popkin says, "Bush gained something." Tonight, "We'll see if he keeps it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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