||Jeff Greenfield is a senior analyst for CNN. He is providing Web-exclusive analysis for CNN allpolitics.com during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: Debate winners and losers
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If Al Gore's campaign had known in advance that fully half of the second debate would center on specific foreign policy questions, it probably would have popped the champagne cork in early celebration -- premature celebration, as it turned out.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush was able, time and time again, to cite specific international hot spots -- literally, from Sierra Leone to East Timor. Whoever helped brief the governor on world matters deserves at least a federal judgeship. And whoever told Vice President Gore to chill on the assertiveness scale deserves a posting to Butte, Montana, should Gore be elected.
Instead of appearing calm in the first half of the debate, Gore appeared almost detached, asserting again and again, "I agree with the governor." It was supposed to make him sound thoughtful and statesmanlike. Instead, it appeared as if Bush were a younger, more energetic -- dare I say, more "Clintonian" candidate than the buttoned-up Gore.
That may account for why the first flash polls showed Bush a winner. But this is not to say that Bush walked away with a clear-cut victory. On two issues, Bush may have opened himself up to second- and third-day stories that could wind up doing him real damage.
The first is on the Texas record. Here, Gore was specific -- Texas, he said, ranks last or next to last on three critical health care matters. And, he added, the governor chose a big tax cut over health care funding.
If this turns out to be an exaggeration, it will hurt Gore. But Bush's silence on the specifics of this charge suggest it may have substance. If it does, then the whole arena of Bush's record in Texas will take center stage in the last month of this campaign. Indeed, it is the kind of attack that is always aimed at governors who become presidential candidates.
It failed against Carter, Reagan, and Clinton; it worked against Dukakis in 1988 because he was clearly vulnerable. Whether the Gore charges stick may determine whether the Bush momentum will be halted.
The second area is the environment. Here, Gore has a long and credible record of involvement -- too much so, if the Bush campaign is to be believed. If Gore can paint Bush as big oil's buddy, determined to invade environmentally protected regions and indifferent to air and water quality, this will hurt Bush mightily among exactly those "swing" voters about whom we have heard so much: young, parents of small children, fiscally conservative but environmentally liberal.
Those two areas are what the Gore campaign must now stress -- because this second debate, in my view, was Bush's best performance in this entire campaign year. If voters are in fact looking for a reason not to stay with Gore, if they were simply looking for reassurance that Bush is a safe choice, they may well have found it Wednesday night. The ball right now is in Gore's court.