October 3, 2000
MARGARET WARNER: Tonight's the night: The first of three debates between
the two leading presidential candidates. Shields and Gigot are with
us to set the scene for the 9:00 P.M. face-off in Boston between Vice
President Gore and Governor Bush. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields,
who's in Boston, and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul
PAUL GIGOT: I think it could be the most significant event in the campaign, Margaret. I really do. If you look at the impact of debates on these election, there seem to be over the past 40 years or so, there are two kinds, one where viewers watch the validate the choice they've already made. One has a big lead, one of the candidates. 1984, 1996. Other debates are where a lot of... a big chunk of voters are still trying the make up their mind and debates really help them do that. I think that was 1960, 1980, to some extent 1976. I think this is the most important debate since 1980.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, so do you see it that way - that the closeness in the polls makes this particularly important?
MARK SHIELDS: I do, Margaret. I agree with Paul's assessment. And I have to add that Americans are practical people. They didn't tune in, in 1996 because that election was over by the time we got to the debates, the Bob Dole-Bill Clinton election, Bill Clinton was effectively reelected. But in 1980, the turnout was enormous. 90% of adults in America watched one of the debates in 1960. So I think the turnout is going to be big, and I think people are watching. There are those who are not sure, who are looking for reassurance. There are those who are openly conflicted, and there are those whose choices are lukewarm, at best. So it's important, enormously important. And the fact they're side by side for 90 minutes is a marvelous opportunity for voters and an incredible risk for the candidates.
MARGARET WARNER: So Paul, what should we expect to see from Gore tonight?
PAUL GIGOT: I think he'll try to play against the caricature of him as a mean, bulldog. I think he'll try to be as warm and fuzzy as is possible for Al Gore to be -- not terribly warm and fuzzy, but he'll try. And I think you'll see him really go on the attack, but go on the attack on issues. He thinks that he can go after Bush on Social Security, I think taxes, and Medicare, because he hopes that he can expose Bush as too risky and too much of a change, and perhaps not as knowledgeable as you need to be if you're President, if he can make that stick. So I think you'll see him go right in on those vulnerabilities. Gore has a way. He usually picks one vulnerability and he just bites into it and won't let go. With Bradley it was the $150 voucher for Medicaid. And he'll repeat that 40 times in a debate.
MARGARET WARNER: Warner: Early and often
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, and I think you'll see something like that happen tonight too.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you expect to see from Gore, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Margaret, I think that Al Gore tonight goes into this debate with an enormous advantage and one great disadvantage. The big advantage is that as recently as this morning in the "Wall Street Journal"/ABC Poll, we see that people -- voters basically come down on the side of Gore versus Bush on the key issues of this campaign. So his job is not so much convincing voters that his position is their position as the fact that he is a likable person -- that someone that they're going to be comfortable with for the next four years. I don't think he will be in the attack mode, but I'll say this. If he is attacked and if he is provoked, I think you can expect him to return it in kind.
MARGARET WARNER: What has he done in past debates that he should avoid or you think he'll try to avoid tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, his record in debates is pretty good. The debate against Ross Perot, which was probably his most spectacular success on the Larry King Show just before the Congress vote on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, were a lot riding on it, he really went after Perot personally and raised questions about Perot's conflicts of interest and so forth and threw Perot totally off. I don't think you'll see anything like that tonight, although it has been suggested, little things he could do to tweak Governor Bush. But I think that Al Gore basically has to convince people that he is somebody that they're going to be comfortable with, that they're going to admire and like as President for four years. That I think is the doubt that gnaws at the suspicions about his candidacy.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do you expect, Paul, that we'll see from Bush?
PAUL GIGOT: I think he'll try to take advantage of one of his big advantages, which is his personality. He is a more likable guy. He has a sense of humor. I think he'll try to find a way to show that, have that come through. I think he's also...we may have a really interesting issues debate because both candidates think it's in their best issues to have that kind of an argument. For Bush it's not so much to get caught in the details, in the weeds; it's to draw philosophic contrasts. Mark is right that on a lot of these issues the polls show Gore has an advantage. Bush can't let him get away with that. He has to sell the tax cut, for example. He has to sell it convincingly; he has to make the case because a tax cut is a very big issue with a lot of men in particular. He's got to keep his advantage there. He can't let Gore get away with prescription drugs running away. He's got to draw contrasts on that, and he's got to sell the case for entitlement reform, Social Security and Medicare, and make the argument that Gore had eight years, Clinton/Gore had eight years and they didn't do it. So we may actually have not a big character fight; we may have a big issues debate.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you expect that, Mark, to see this specificity on issues from Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: I think you'll see specificity -- subliminal specificity -- from both candidates. I think their purposes are different. Al Gore found out that specificity worked for him at the convention in Los Angeles. And George Bush, as Bob Dole said last week, the last Republican standard bearer in his speech at Dennison University, that there are doubts; that Bob Dole said that he didn't share them, but he said there are doubts whether George Bush was ready for primetime, whether he filled the suit. Well, those may be inside the beltway, they may be inside politics, but they do. And I think the Bush people want to address them. And the best way to do that is to show mastery, to show a sense of command and mastery of the zone information. The last thing in the world he wants is to ever be corrected on one of his own policy proposals by Al Gore. But I think that will be Governor Bush. Governor Bush is a likable and easy-going person. I think on the tax cut, what Gore's rebuttal will be is that Bush's tax cut is 1%. It means more in a tax rebate to the top 1% of the country than it means spending on prescription drugs, on Medicare, on education combined. So I think there will be a good give and take back and forth on those issues.
MARGARET WARNER: If, Paul, Bush does... Gore does do what he's done, which you pointed out, takes one thing and hammers it home, which of Bush's positions do you think it will be that he latches on to? Will it be the tax cut?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it probably will be the tax cut or Medicare. I think Medicare... Gore has been running very strong and very hard on Medicare. I think he thinks that's his key to senior voters and it's an important issue for him. On the point that Mark makes about the experience level and whether people have doubts about Bush doing the job, I think that's an opportunity for Bush. The Pew Poll recently, two or three weeks ago, showed about 46% of the voters said they weren't sure that he was up to the job as President. This is Bush's chance, unfiltered by the media, not in a sound bite, to make the argument that he is. He won't have a better one. This is... That's why debates often help challengers.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mark, would you expect Gore to do anything overt to try to feed those doubts about Bush? Or will he simply let Bush just try to present himself and obviously hope that Bush doesn't appear in command?
MARK SHIELDS: I think if he sees an opening, he'll jump at it. There's no question - or anything that's left sort of dangling or there's a loose end on one of the policy proposals that he answers, I don't think he'll hesitate to do that. But I think that Al Gore tonight will use specificity, as well. I mean, and I think he has to do it. I talked to several of his people today, and they insisted that the 13 real folks who went down to Florida with him played a real part and were very direct and very blunt in telling him that he had to tell real stories about real people in order to connect. I mean, I don't think you'll hear much about sort of the issues paper approach that the white papers that Al Gore, the mastery of arcane, esoteric items that Al Gore has been noted for in the past. I think everything will probably have, as it did against Bill Bradley, a personal angle.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We'll see you both at the later show. thanks for being with us.