Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush are preparing for their encounter this week in the first of three televised debates that have assumed a high degree of importance given the closeness of the presidential election campaign.
The debate takes place in Boston, Massachusetts, at 9pm eastern time on Tuesday (midday Wednesday Australian eastern time).
Opinion polls indicate a see-sawing contest, some showing Gore ahead, others putting Bush in the lead. Allowing for standard margins of error, the polls indicate an election that is, in the words of the much-loved media cliche, too close to call.
The debate takes place amidst an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the leaking of a video of Bush practising for the debate. The tape was received in the mail by former Democratic congressman Thomas Downey on September 13. It was accompanied by a briefing book used by the Bush campaign. Downey is assisting Gore in his preparations for the debate.
It appears that the package was leaked from the office of Maverick Media, the Bush campaign’s advertising firm. Suspicion has centred on an administrative assistant at the firm, Yvette Lozano, who is recorded on security video with a package she took to the post office from where the leaked package was sent. Lozano has denied being the culprit, claiming that the package simply contained khaki pants her boss was posting home.
The Democrats appear to have handled the incident well. The video was turned over to the police soon after it was received and it is suggested that the video was only viewed to the extent necessary to determine its contents. The Democrats have suggested the package may have been part of a dirty tricks campaign to discredit them prior to the debates.
Intriguingly, Lozano once worked on the campaign for Ann Richards, the former Democrat Governor of Texas. Richards, famous for her line about Bush’s father that he was “born with a silver foot in his mouth”, was defeated by George W. Bush in 1994.
Preparations for Tuesday’s debate have been intense, with both sides haggling over details such as the height of the lecterns, whether lapel microphones will be used and the use of props by the candidates. The lecterns will be 48 inches high, lapel microphones and props are out.
Both candidates have engaged in practice debates with other politicians playing the part of their opponent. Bush has joked that Senator Judd Gregg (Republican, New Hampshire), who played Gore for Bob Dole in 1996 and is repeating the performance this time, has become so good in the part that he is winning the debates!
Gore has gathered a group of 13 citizens to assist him in his debate preparation. The group includes a high school principal, amongst others. Gore is looking for a way of connecting with swinging voters, particularly in close states like Florida.
It was said recently that if Gore was forced to spend a lot of time in California, then Bush would win the election. Conversely, if Bush spent a lot of time in Florida, Gore would win. Polls show Florida is a dead-heat and it is widely believed that the candidate who can secure Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes will probably win the election.
Televised debates have been a fixture of American elections since 1960 when then Vice-President Richard Nixon met with Senator John F. Kennedy. It is commonly argued that whilst Nixon was regarded as the winner by radio audiences, television viewers awarded victory to Kennedy.
Watch the first 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon (58m)