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BUSH, GORE GET READY TO RUMBLE.

Byline: Rick Orlov Staff Writer

Virtually even in the polls, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush face a critical showdown in their first debate tonight and political observers say their best bet is to steal a little from each other's act.

Bush needs to show he is smart enough to be president. And Gore needs to inject some humor into his personality.

``Both want to distinguish themselves from each other, but they need to take a little from each other,'' said Tom Hollihan, a professor in political communications and an associate dean at the Annenberg School of Communications at University of Southern California.

``George Bush needs to show he is smart enough to be president - that he has the gravitas that people expect in a president - and Al Gore has to show some humor, while not being someone he is not.''

With polls showing the candidates running almost even, tonight's debate is seen as particularly important for reaching those elusive, undecided voters who make up about 10 percent of the electorate.

``People who are decided are going to think their candidate won the debate unless there is some major gaffe by either one,'' political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said. ``So, what both are doing are reaching out to the undecided who will determine who wins the election.''

Ram M. Roy, a professor of international relations at California State University, Northridge, said he sees the debate as solely an appeal to independent voters, particularly in the Midwest.

``If you look at the race, it could be decided in places like Ohio,'' Roy said. ``People who are independent voters will be looking for a variety of things - body language (and) if Mr. Gore is genuine in the same way that Mr. Bush appears to be.''

And, he said, the two also have to be clear on their programs.

``Mr. Bush has to be careful he doesn't get confused by his own plans and programs and make sure he doesn't make mistakes,'' Roy said.

``On the other side, Mr. Gore has to try to avoid being too stiff. And, he should not try to defend the Clinton administration and talk only about his proposals for the future,'' he said.

And a key to both candidates is their ability to appear ``presidential,'' that nearly undefinable characteristic that engenders public trust which comes through in body language, style and communication abilities.

Jeffe said she thinks Bush has the most to gain if he holds his own against Gore, and she points to the strategy the Republican nominee and his camp already have started in reducing expectations against Gore.

``If it's a tie, Bush wins merely in being able to match the debating skills of an incumbent vice president,'' Jeffe said. ``And, Bush's people have been masterful in saying what a good debater Al Gore is, how he has been there and won other debates.

``Well, you don't get to be Texas governor by not being able to handle yourself,'' Jeffe added, recounting how former Texas Gov. Ann Richards concedes that Bush got the better of her in a gubernatorial campaign debate. ``Bush won that election.''

Jeffe said the presidential debate, in many respects, is a metaphor for the campaign in how close the election is and the difference will be in the ideas and programs expressed by the two candidates.

``It will end up being about substance and which one can best sell their programs and policies to the American public,'' Jeffe said. ``Gore has to get away from looking as if he is preprogrammed and Bush has to get rid of the frat boy image. It is an important moment for both of them.''

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 3, 2000
Words:619
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