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Jewish World Review Sept. 11 , 2000 / 10 Elul, 5760

Roger Simon

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Playin' with AlGore's mind -- WATCHING George W. Bush and Al Gore debate about their debates is about as satisfying as watching two guys anteing up in a poker game: It doesn't mean anything, it's just something you have to get out of the way before the games can begin.

Both men say they want to debate. George Bush wants to show people he is not as dumb as his critics think (nobody could be), and Al Gore wants to make the debates his killing ground -- he wants to do to Bush in a debate what he did to Ross Perot and Jack Kemp in debates.

So why don't the two just debate? Especially since the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was created by the Republicans and Democrats in 1987 to avoid exactly what is going on now, has already announced three presidential debates in Boston, Winston-Salem, N.C., and St. Louis, and one vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky.

But setting up such debates is a little like you picking the time and place of the next heavyweight boxing match: You don't own the talent.

The George Bush campaign has decided that it wants different debates, and since it has one-half the talent -- George W. Bush -- it figured it might be able to get its way.

Bush wants to debate not in 90-minute debates that all the networks will broadcast at once, but on NBC's "Meet the Press," on CNN's "Larry King Live" and on the commission debate in St. Louis.

He says Gore said he would debate him "any place and any time," and if Gore refuses it is because Gore is dishonest and chicken.

Gore says Bush wants to avoid big-audience debates that all the networks will cover and instead go for small audience debates that will be covered only by one network. They say Bush is chicken.

Personally, I don't think anybody is chicken. I think the Bush team has figured out that Gore wants the debates more than they do -- because Gore figures he will destroy Bush -- and therefore they are going to mess with Gore's mind as much as possible.

If Gore wants the commission debates, then they don't. If he wants 90-minute debates, then they don't. If he wants debates covered by all the networks, then they don't.

What Bush wants is to get Gore off his game, upset him and gain whatever small advantage it can.

There is a long history of this. As Bill Clinton aides admitted to me, in 1992 they insisted the three candidates -- Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot -- sit on stools, and then they brought in extra-large stools so Perot's feet could not touch the floor. The idea was to make Perot look childish. The idea was to get him nervous and off his game.

You might also remember the debates that year for the famous moment when Bush looked at his watch while Clinton was answering a question. It made Bush look impatient, rude and unpresidential.

But the three sides had agreed there would be no "reaction" shots of the candidates who were not speaking. So why was the camera on Bush when Clinton was talking?

Because Clinton planned it that way. His campaign had studied Bush and knew he got impatient and squirmy. And so Bill Clinton purposely walked forward on the stage in front of Bush so Bush would be on camera while Clinton was talking.

Bush never knew what hit him, but his son has studied all the lessons from 1992 and now intends to use them against Gore.

Whatever Gore wants, Bush doesn't want it.

Does any of this serve the public?

No. That's why they call it politics.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate