Voters Await First Presidential Debate

Barring the unforeseen, Vice President Al Gore '69 and Texas Governor George W. Bush will head into the campaign season's first presidential debate on Tuesday at parity in the national polls and closely matched in the Electoral College.

For both candidates, September was bruising, energy draining, and edifying. Coming out of the Democratic Convention in August, Gore was buoyed by one of the largest bounces in recent election cycles. His standing among women voters improved significantly, the press coverage of his campaign was less harsh, and Democrats felt optimistic about his chances.

By media standards, Bush began September in a bind. There were the gaffes: his admission that he didn't effectively articulate his tax plan; his decision to spur the debate offer of a bipartisan commission; a series of televised malaprops. But by Labor Day, Bush had evened the Gore convention bounce. The two were tied in the polls. A month later, after 18-hour days of give-and-take, neither side has given an inch.

"It's a dead even race," says Clyde Wilcox, a political science professor at Georgetown University. "There have been two conventions and two convention bounces," said.

There are more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, but differences across states tend to smooth over the difference.

About 37 percent of the electorate--consider themselves independents. Of them, those likely to vote are hard to pin down. They swing.

Many earn between $25,000 an $50,000 and live in suburbs. With these voters, there is little traction.

According to Alan Crockett, a pollster with John Zogby's firm, no candidate has been elected president since 1972 without winning this group.

So the candidates have tailored their messages appropriately, advancing their reform plans for prescription drug coverage, Social Security and education.

"What will determine who wins those swing voters is exactly the question Ronald Reagan asked, 'Are you better off today than you were four years ago?'" Wilcox says. "Bush has to come out and win this. A draw will go to Gore."

In past weeks, Bush has made education "his top priority," says Ken Lisaius, a campaign spokesperson.

In speeches throughout so-called "battleground" states like Ohio and Michigan, Bush has stuck to a lesson plan: He says he'd make sure states test the reading and math competencies of students in school that serve poorer areas. If schools didn't improve, he'd make vouchers an option for parents. He also says he'll help states double the number of charter schools in three years. The total cost: about $48 billion. Bush uses poll-tested phrases like "education recession" to describe a school mess, varyingly blamed on bureaucrats, distant teachers' unions, and the culture.

Though doctrinaire conservatives aren't thrilled with the prospect of enlarging the federal government's role in education, they see Bush's plan as far preferable to Gore's.

But Gore has an advantage. Partially because of Democrats' continual support for spending money on schools and teachers, likely voters tell pollsters they are more sympathetic to Gore's proposals.

The vice president would spend part of about $115 billion to boost teacher salaries, provided the instructor is certified. He'd force under-performing schools to shape up. He also promises to triple the number of charter schools. Gore would also allow parents to invest in a tax-free savings account for college tuition.

John Roemer, a professor of political science at Yale who specializes in the economy, says that neither candidate is taking the necessary steps to invest in K-12 education.

"[Investing] is the best-known method we have of redistribution," Roemer says. "That is how we level the playing field."

If the candidates' education proposals strike some as tepid, Bush's plan for Social Security is either very bold or very risky, depending upon whose opinion you ask.

Bush would allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes--about 2 percent of their income--in personal retirement accounts. He promises not to raise payroll taxes and says he won't cut benefits for current retirees. Since the money paid into Social Security by workers now is paid directly to older beneficiaries, the Gore campaign wonders where Bush will make up the incomes slated for the new personal retirement accounts.

Gore would use the budget surplus to pay down the debt, and use the savings on interest payments to extend the life of Social Security for several more decades. Bush's campaign, by contrast, questions whether Gore will raise the program's eligibility age to cover the cost of baby boom retirees.

Both campaigns have offered comprehensive prescription drug plans. Gore's would add a costly benefit to Medicare. Bush has proposed giving eligible Americans a stipend to spend on a choice of plans, administered either by HMO's or by Medicare.

Both sides have put forth substantive proposals, and they recognize the danger of distractions.

Republicans now admit that Bush's reluctance to accept the debates was a bona fide tactical error.

"When you spend all your time talking about debate strategy, you didn't win any votes that day," says Rick Davis, a former top campaign aide to John McCain who is now a fellow at the Institute of Politics. "You only win votes by talking about issues that voters are actually going to make a choice on."

And now that the two candidates are neck and neck, keeping focused will matter even more.

"Our campaign has a mood of confidence this week, and we are excited at the opportunity for Governor Bush to go out and share with the American people what his vision for America is," Lisaius says.

Bush will have that opportunity in Tuesday's debate. Though his debating skills are, in the minds of most analysts, measurably weaker than Gore's, Bush has handled tough contests in the past. And his campaign was worked assiduously to make Gore seem even more Ciceronian than he actually is.

Gore's campaign is happy to oblige with the opposite.

"Despite Bush's efforts to lower expectations, we think Bush is a great debater," says Gore spokesperson Dagoberto Vega.

"The debates are going to be crucial," the pollster Crockett says. "We do expect Gore to score well, and how much that reflects in the polls will remain to be seen. You don't really know how things are taken by the average American, and sometimes its something that you just can't predict."

And even the sound bite answers may be useful.

"The debates offer the best way in the only semi-spontaneous environment to compare the candidates on issues and their 'presidential presence,'" says Steven Wayne, a professor of political science at Georgetown.

--Staff writer Benjamin D. Grizzle contributed to the reporting of this story.