October 17, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: Now, a preview of tonight's third and final presidential debate from Shields and Gigot; that's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot. Well, going through reams of notes before I came in here tonight, I kept seeing the same phrases, Paul, "make or break," "high stakes," "the beginning of the end of the campaign." Roughly true?
PAUL GIGOT: Roughly, but I don't think in a race that's this close, the election is going to end tonight for either of them. We're going to have a three-week rough age tumble campaign in matter what happens tonight. But the stakes are high, and the pressure is particularly high I think on Vice President Gore to shake up the dynamic of the race, because it looks like Governor Bush has emerged as a slight lead, but a lead nonetheless. And things have been trending his way. And the debates have worked for him. In the "Wall Street Journal"/NBC Poll, about one in four voters say the debates have made them more likely to vote for Bush - only one in five for Gore. So Gore needs to do what the debates haven't done for him, which is to create some issue differences with Bush that he hasn't been able to do so far. Bush is very close on education, very close on Social Security, very close on gun control. And while he's making people more comfortable with him as a leader, which he wanted to do in the debates, Gore hasn't driven those differences on issues, and he has to do that tonight I think.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark, make or break?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it is important, Ray. I think it's important in this respect. Up until the debates, the campaign is parallel skiing. Each candidate is off skiing in a different part of country, a different part of state. And all of a sudden when they do debate, they collide. They come across each other. And Paul's right, the two debates have been good to George W. Bush. It turns out to be sort of the Brier Rabbit syndrome of this year 2000. The Bush campaign seemed to go to great lengths to avoid the debates, to try and change the format, or limit them or whatever, and if anything, the debates have served George Bush's candidacy very, very well. After tonight, never again will they be on the same stage, will people have a chance to size them up together. And I think it's especially crucial for Vice President Gore that after tonight, the next two day, the narrative of this campaign changes and that they're talking, George Bush is defending his position on issues that Paul described, particularly the patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs, and explaining his Texas record rather than Vice President Gore somehow explaining exaggerations.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Mark, after the second debate, there was more in evidence of Gore campaign response strategy, like you saw for the Bush campaign -- people isolating statements that the opposition candidate made and trying to truth squad them. Too late, not coherent enough? How's it working?
MARK SHIELDS: Not too late. I think it was just eclipsed by events. The events in the Middle East, the Cole ship and the death of 17 Americans -- I mean, that just all of a sudden stopped the campaign coverage. I really think, Ray, that the Gore people came to it late, but they would have gotten, and I think the press felt a little need to compensate for the excessive scrutiny, some would say, and I would be among them, of Vice President Gore after the first debate in his exaggerations or embellishments that Governor Bush would have been held to a similar standard, and because we had the news, which seemed a lot more important than debates, and is, then he didn't get that same kind of scrutiny or that same kind of circulation.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul, the second debate was carried on in the midst of the meltdown of Yugoslavia -- this third one in the shadow of the Middle East and the attack on the Cle. How does that play into what goes on in St. Louis tonight?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it will likely, and Jim doesn't share his questions with us, Jim Lehrer, but I would suspect it's going to be a subject of debate. And I think it will be interesting to see whether Vice President Gore tries the make it an issue again. He didn't have a lot of success in the second debate diving any differences with Bush on that. And, in fact, only really gained traction during the end of the debate when he turned to the domestic agenda. Bush has been very, very skillful in, frankly, cozying up to the Clinton agenda on this to try to look like a statesman, to try to say I don't want to cause any trouble. We all speak with one voice. But it has the effect of muting the differences.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, here we are three weeks away from election day. There have only been three of these events. But limiting them to such a small number, do you make the margin of error that much tighter, make it into a political high wire act?
PAUL GIGOT: You do. That's why some Republicans thought Bush should have started debating the Vice President back in the summer. If you're the challenger, if you're the rookie, you don't... you want to get practice. And Bush does tend to get better. He did in the primaries. He has tended to get better as these things have gone along. The biggest stakes for Bush I thought were the first one, because that was the place where Gore might have been able to knock him out if the Governor didn't look up to the job because that is when the voters were getting their first real look, a lot of them, at George W. Bush. This one, a little smaller audience, and higher stakes I think for Gore because it's his last chance, as Mark said, to draw some of those differences.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, this last debate is in St. Louis, and St. Louis being in Missouri, the home of Governor Mel Carnahan. Does this take Missouri out of play and give Bob Torricelli, the Senatorial campaign committee chief, some rough numbers to work with now?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't think it takes Missouri out of play. I think any scenario for the Democrats to capture a majority in the Senate, ray, included Governor Carnahan beating Senator Ashcroft. The Republican in Missouri. That's not going to happen now, obviously. And even though his name remains on the ballot, the Democrats are not going to win that Senate seat. So John Ashcroft is effectively reelected. But Missouri as a state I don't think it does change obviously its importance. And I don't think it resolves the presidential race. This is a state, Missouri, that has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century except 1956 when it sported Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower. What it means is that the Carnahan campaign, which was a well-organized, well-run campaign and was going to run a massive get-out-the-vote, especially in a Democratic city like St. Louis, will not be doing so on election day. That could be a problem for the Democrats. In contrast, of course, the Republicans will not have the sense of urgency or zeal that they had in a close Senate contest which was really up for grabs.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I think that's right. Gore has to meet secretary of state the voters himself. It's one less reason for Democrats to come out and vote. And as far as the Senate goes, I mean, this is the mirror image tragedy that Republicans had when Paul Coverdale, the incumbent from Georgia lost his life and effectively turned that seat over to the Democrats. This makes it much less likely that the Democrats can run the table in most of the other seats where Republicans are vulnerable and take the Senate. I think a lot less likely.
MARK SHIELDS: Ray, I think one other thing I would add, I think it makes it more likely that President Clinton will may a more visible and prominent role in the last three weeks of the campaign.
RAY SUAREZ: Why do you say that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, if you're talking about energizing Democratic voters and the core constituency to the Democratic Party, especially minority voters, Al Gore has not been able to do that thus far, and I think Bill Clinton's unmatched in that respect. It's a risk. There's no question about it because Bill Clinton remains very controversial with many voters who are independent. But the other factor is, I think Bill Clinton has an ability to frame the debate between Gore and Bush, which Gore has not been able to do up until now. And I could see Bill Clinton, you know, taking on George Bush's tax cut or whatever, and a lot more effectively than Al Gore has.
RAY SUAREZ: A quick response?
PAUL GIGOT: It will be fascinating to see if the Gore people want him to get in and do that because they've been keeping him at arm's length, but it is very high risk. But I agree Bill Clinton is itching to get into this thing.
RAY SUAREZ: How does somebody at the top echelons of the Bush campaign do the math when that news comes in, the cavalry has been called?
PAUL GIGOT: Their spin will be we love it, but they'll be worried about the Democratic turnout, because they have a thought all along this would end up being a turnout election, where both bases of both parties were very, very important, and who was motivated more, who was mobilized more could decide the outcome, because otherwise it's not a high-profile election where a lot of inattentive voters feel a great deal is at stake.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both; we'll see you later.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Ray.