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Saturday, September 23, 2000

Gore has
more ammo in a
tough debate

Vice president has the edge
over Bush in debating skills,
but if he plays too rough it
may work against him

By Jack Bilmes
Special to the Star-Bulletin

NEXT month's presidential debates will be crucial in the race to the White House. Many polls still show Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a virtual tie as they head into three debates that may decide the election.

How Bush handles himself in a one-on-one debate remains to be seen, but we have ample information on Al Gore. We have seen him in debate against Dan Quayle, Ross Perot, Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley.

Of these, the 1992 debate with Quayle is likely to be the best model of what Gore will do in his debates with Bush.

The confrontations with Bush are likely to be more controlled by format restrictions and less raucous than the debate with Quayle was, but Gore may approach Bush in ways similar to the way he approached Quayle.

This may be the case because Bush bears certain similarities to Quayle. Like Quayle, he is not nearly as articulate as Gore and, in fact, like Quayle, Bush has become known for his solecisms.

Gore appears to be more intelligent, or at least intellectual, than Bush, an advantage that he also held in relation to Quayle. He appears to be better informed on matters of policy than either his 1992 or 2000 opponent.

Bush, on the other hand, is widely credited with an easy charm that Quayle lacked, and which may ultimately negate all of Gore's seeming advantages. Losing with grace and charm may be more effective, in terms of drawing votes, than "winning on points."

Gore is a smooth talker. He is fluent and speaks in complete sentences. Although his appearance may be stiff, he speaks with emphasis and inflection.

He is also aggressive. He had various ways of needling Quayle.

One such way was keeping him on the hook. For example, at one point, Gore mentioned that President Bush had claimed in a previous debate that a deal was concluded with Boris Yeltsin to remove the SS-18s.

Gore pointed out that this deal was never concluded and asked Quayle whether Bush hadn't made a mistake.

Quayle: The president does have a commitment from Boris Yeltsin to eliminate the SS-18s that is a commitment to...

Gore: Is it an agreement?

Quayle: It is a commitment and, uh, we had...

Gore: Ohhh...

Quayle: It's, it is a...well, let's, let's, talk about...

In the face of Gore's needling, Quayle becomes completely inarticulate.

Then, while Quayle is speaking, Gore opens and closes his mouth, making a nonverbal show of being interrupted. After Quayle speaks, Gore leaves a two-second silence, as if to say, "Are you quite finished?"

Then Gore continues with what he was in the course of saying, completely ignoring Quayle's questions and underlining the inappropriateness of Quayle's having spoken during Gore's opening statement.

In a third instance, while Quayle is talking about the Democrats' opposition to term limits, Gore interjects, "We're fixin' to limit one (term)," referring to President Bush. This elicits a big laugh from the audience.

Quayle's response is somewhat feeble and desperate, saying that it is the terms of liberal Democrats that will be ended, not that of the current administration.

These tactics may not work as well on Bush, who may not be as easy to fluster as Quayle was. But it seems probable that Gore, if given the opportunity, will try and needle Bush and throw him off balance.

Gore treated Quayle in a patronizing, half-amused fashion. He never missed a chance to call him Dan and never used his title. His attitude was largely conveyed in his intonations and facial expressions, but also in the way he phrased some of his remarks to Quayle.

"Dan, I appreciate you readin' my book very much (laughter from audience) but you've got it wrong," or "But, Dan, you can clear this up very simply by repeating after me, I support the right of a woman to choose. Can you say that?"

This tactic was effective with Quayle and worked perhaps even better against Perot, but Bush is not likely to be as frenetic and overwrought as Quayle, nor as irritable as Perot. Gore may have to approach him differently.

Gore's use of questions in the 1992 debate was particularly interesting. He frequently loaded his questions to Quayle with invidious presuppositions, like, "How much longer will it take, Dan, for trickledown economics to work in your theory?"

The presuppositions, of course, are that trickledown economics is the current administration's policy, that it is supposed to work, and that it has not yet done so. And "trickledown economics" is (or has become) a somewhat derisive term that Quayle would probably not want to use to describe the policies of the administration.

In appears, then, that Gore is likely, within the constraints of the debate format, to be aggressive with Bush, to try to fluster him and keep him off balance, to try and control the topic with frequent questions addressed to Bush and, when the opportunity presents itself, to interfere with Bush's turns at talk.

These are possibly risky tactics. But if Bush keeps his cool and handles himself gracefully, Gore could end up looking overly aggressive and ineffectual.

Jack Bilmes is a professor of anthropology at the
University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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