We aren’t the only ones who are asking how GWB can get across to the country who he really is. The Bushies are wondering the same thing. Paid media won’t work, not in a presidential campaign. They found that out in New Hampshire. Formal speeches and sound bites won’t work either. Town meetings don’t reach a mass audience. Here’s the answer: Accept Al Gore’s challenge to debate early and often.
As we all know, presidential debates aren’t really debates. They’re really simultaneous press conferences. The winner isn’t necessarily the candidate with the higher IQ or the greater knowledge; it’s the one who connects with the audience. Sometimes a single moment can define a debate: Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no John Kennedy” to Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter, and George W.’s reaching into his coat pocket in the South Carolina debate to read from a campaign flyer, “Paid for by John McCain.” That debate was the turning point in Bush’s presidential fortunes. In that debate and later in the one in California—when McCain appeared on a video monitor atop a podium—viewers saw that McCain didn’t react well under pressure, something that the Bush campaign had been saying (well, whispering) all along. When Alan Keyes was asked in the California debate whether he would endorse one of his rivals, Bush left his place and went over to preen beside Keyes, auditioning. This was a glimpse of the Bush we know, a real person who doesn’t take himself too seriously. The media—that’s THEM, not us—might say that the episode only proves that he doesn’t take anything seriously, but the audience loved it. He connected.
The Bushies will regard this as a high-risk strategy. Gore, they say, has a reputation as a great debater. So far, his record is two wins (Perot and Bradley), no losses. But Gore is nowhere near as good as Bill Clinton when it comes to connecting with the public, and Bush, having got his New Hampshire fiasco behind him, is nowhere near as bad as Perot or Bradley. Put them side by side, and under pressure the real Al Gore and the real George Bush will emerge, and then let the public judge.