Pundit Central

Sunday-Morning Debate Prep

Issue 1 is this Tuesday’s presidential debate. Issue 2 is the state-by-state Electoral College contests. Issue 3 is the government’s approval of abortion pill RU-486.

Pundits agree that with the race tied, a lot depends on the debate. What’s at stake for George W. Bush? Many pundits, such as Tucker Carlson (CNN’s Late Edition), think that Bush has to prove that he’s not a lightweight. George F. Will (ABC’s This Week) thinks that the public is so turned off by Al Gore’s personality that Bush merely has to prove that he’s affable. Kate O’Beirne (CNN’s Capital Gang) adds that Bush did just fine in the primaries, so conservatives shouldn’t worry about his performance. What’s at stake for Gore? Will (TW) says that Gore, as always, is in danger of coming across as a demagogue–although George Stephanopoulos (TW) argues that Gore’s advisers will drub the demagoguery out of his debate presentation. Steve Roberts (LE) says that as long as Gore doesn’t act insufferable, he’ll win. Al Hunt (CG) says that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan should participate in one of the debates.

With national polls showing a dead heat, the pundits look to the state-by-state map for wisdom. (Mark Shields [PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer] complains that the race has been tied since the Democratic convention, but that the media have magnified non-existent differences.) Of course, many of the battleground states are also tied. In Wisconsin, Stephanopoulos (TW) reports, Ralph Nader has strong support not just from lefties, but from centrist Perot voters as well. In Michigan, David Broder ( Washington Week in Review) relates, health care and education are the major issues, which may give Gore a slight edge. In Missouri, notes David Shribman (WWIR), the big issue is a Senate race between former governors, which will probably influence the presidential vote rather than vice versa. Florida, reports Richard Berke (WWIR), is an unexpected boon for Gore: By making the race competitive, he has forced Bush to spend money there. By contrast, Washington state is an unexpected boon for Bush, says Mark Shields (CG): Clinton won Washington by double digits–and even Dukakis won by two points in ‘88–yet Gore is struggling to stay ahead. (Kate O’Beirne predicts that Gore’s association with the Microsoft lawsuit and his stance against the salmon-fishing industry will tip the state to Bush; Al Hunt says that Gore may be able to ride the coattails of wealthy and popular Democratic Senate challenger Maria Cantwell.)

Pundits differ on the political ramifications of the abortion pill’s approval. Several, however–such as Lawrence O’Donnell ( The McLaughlin Group) and Gloria Borger (WWIR)–agree that the issue helps Gore: The approval will force Dubya to reiterate his pro-life positions (which are unpopular with undecided independent voters) and will consolidate Gore’s support among women voters (who tend to be pro-choice). (Pat Robertson lends support to the first theory when he tells CBS’s Face the Nation   that Christian voters are “not energized” by the Bush campaign’s tepid moral and social agenda.) Others, like Michael Barone (MG), say that because the contested states are not solidly pro-choice or pro-life, the issue will be a wash. Politicians also address the issue: Pat Buchanan (NBC’s Meet the Press) calls RU-486 a “human pesticide,” and Rick Lazio (MTP) says that he will not support Medicaid subsidies for the drug.

Bob Novak, Passive-Aggressive Anti-Populist

NOVAK (CG): What makes it fun is neither [candidate has momentum]. There was some momentum for Gov. Bush a couple weeks ago when he caught up with Vice President Gore, but it’s even now. You’ve got maybe 10 percent of the voters who–I don’t know what they’ve been looking at. They can’t make up their minds. I guess they look and see who makes the fewest mistakes, or [are] interested in these distractions, who are going to decide the election. But right now, I don’t think there’s much movement at all. You look at all the polls, it’s just about a dead heat, very little movement from day to day. And these strange people who make up their minds on how a candidate looks and sounds rather than what he stands for are going to pick our next president.

MARK SHIELDS: And you’re not happy about that at all.

NOVAK (objecting to Shields): No, it’s a democracy.

Last Word

Let them eat cable.

–Margaret Carlson (CG), on NBC’s assertion that it does not have to broadcast the presidential debate because it will be shown on MSNBC