||Syndicated columnist Robert Novak is co-host of CNN's "Evans Novak, Hunt & Shields," as well as "Crossfire." He is providing exclusive election analysis for CNN.com.|
Robert Novak: No clear winners or losers in debate
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Al Gore did what he had to do at Wake Forest Wednesday: he looked much less condescending and obnoxious than he had in the first debate in Boston
eight days earlier. But in the process, he disarmed himself by abandoning the
aggressiveness and combativeness that is the hallmark of his political style.
It's a little like home run king Mark McGwire stepping up to the plate without a
George W. Bush did what he had to do Wednesday night: he discussed
foreign policy for the first 42 minutes without hitch. While endorsing much
of President Clinton's foreign policy, he did effectively stake out a position against Clinton "nation-building"--as in Haiti and Somalia. Bush's performance contradicted the Gore campaign's attack on him as a "bungler" and a "bumbler."
Nobody but a partisan spinner could declare a clear "winner" or "loser" at Wake Forest. Nevertheless, both the polls and the experts give the edge to Bush. That is bad news for Gore, who was slipping in most polls going into the second presidential debate.
Gore, in effect, is still suffering from the consequences of the first debate when he sighed, snorted, rolled his eyes, interrupted and generally broke the rules. His political style is attack, attack, attack. To correct the damage done from his first debate, he in effect tried to transform his personality -- not an easy task in mid-campaign, much less in mid-debate.
The transformation was not completely successful. When moderator Jim Lehrer's decision to prolong the foreign policy discussion produced a non-confrontational situation, Gore tried to take the offensive. He was also up to some of his old tricks. After Bush expressed his opposition to gay marriage, Gore said: "I'm not for gay marriage." Only a few minutes later, however, he said: "I think that we should fund civic unions. And I basically
agree with Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, and I think the three of us have
one view and the governor (Bush) another."
In the second debate, Bush did what he had not in the first debate: refute Gore's wild claims on tax cuts for the top 1 percent of income earners. Bush responded that while those taxpayers pay one-third of all federal income taxes, they receive only one-fifth of his proposed tax cuts.
Was Bush the perfect debater? Far from it. He spent too long on the defensive, staving off Gore's attacks on his record as Governor of Texas. He did not get to the question of federal spending increased under Gore.
But George W. Bush in two debates has played master debater Al Gore to no
worse than a draw and maybe a little better. If the polls continue to show
improvement by Bush, the pressure will be on the vice president next week at
the third debate in St. Louis.