A Viewer's Guide To Gore

Early in the 1988 presidential campaign, Al Gore was getting ready to debate his Democratic primary opponents when his mother slipped him a note. Pauline Gore, widely regarded as the most astute politician in the family, had written just three words: "Smile, Relax, Attack." Gore has seldom strayed from his mother's advice. During the past twelve years, he has approached debate as a contact sport, combining meticulous preparation, an in-your-face rhetorical style and, on occasion, a brazen willingness to fracture the facts in an effort to throw opponents off balance.

The muscular approach hasn't always served him well. His failed 1988 campaign left him with a reputation as an arrogant know-it-all. But in recent years, Gore has dispatched a series of competitors that include Ross Perot, Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley. While he has often struggled on the stump, debates, with their structured formats and rewards for those who do their homework, play closer to his strengths as a campaigner. On Tuesday night in Boston, he begins a series of three encounters with Texas Gov. George W. Bush that could determine the outcome of a race that most pollsters now call a statistical dead heat.

Here's what to look for from Gore the debater:

Bush is most comfortable dealing in broad brush strokes, leaving the specifics to others. So look for Gore to press him on the depth of his policy knowledge and his command of the details. How, for example, would he make up for the trillion-dollar shortfall likely to be created by his plan to allow Americans to invest part of their Social Security premiums? Gore will also look for ways to display his broad foreign policy experience. The larger objective: to raise doubts among voters that Bush has the intellectual heft to be president.

Despite Gore's considerable advantage over Bush in debate experience, these meetings are fraught with peril for the vice president. The peculiar dynamics of the expectations game are, at least for the first debate, against him. The Bush campaign has been working assiduously for months to plant the idea that their guy would be doing fabulously well just to be left standing after Gore gets through with him. If Gore does anything less than mop the floor with Bush, it could be spun as a victory for the Texas governor. Gore must also be careful to make his case without coming off as humorless or mean-spirited. When Jimmy Carter criticized Ronald Reagan's record on Medicare in 1980, Reagan accelerated Carter's slide toward defeat simply by saying, "There you go again," a rejoinder that seemed to capture Carter's piety and high-handedness. Gore is vulnerable to one of those moments. And "Smile, Relax, Attack," may not be enough to help him recover.