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Published: Saturday, 10/14/2000

Will election turn on personality?

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. - Shortly after the end of the second Bush-Gore debate, Michigan Gov. John Engler literally ran into Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Mr. Engler solemnly looked at Mr. Ridge. “He was presidential.”

Mr. Ridge looked back at Mr. Engler and nodded. “Very.”

Slowly the two Republicans began to smile. Soon they were broadly beaming at each other. Then they clapped each other on the shoulder and high-fived. Sighs are out of vogue right now, but their relief was palpable.

It was the renewed dawning of their original idea months ago that their man, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, could return the White House to Republicans. The second debate, they both said later, might have been a turning point they'll later remember with clarity.

Mr. Ridge, who has known Mr. Bush for 20 years and was a serious contender to be his running mate, says it is “just nonsense” that Mr. Bush has been fighting the perception he is a mental lightweight. Mr. Ridge conceded Mr. Bush has trouble with syntax but said, in effect, “so what?” He scoffed that it's not possible to be a fighter pilot and a two-term governor and be a simpleton. The second debate, he said, showed Mr. Bush can hold his own on foreign policy.

Mr. Engler was exulting that Mr. Bush all but told Michiganders that if Mr. Gore wins, they can expect a rash of new environmental regulations that will cause painful spasms throughout the auto industry.

For their part, Mr. Gore's campaign aides were almost as happy after the second debate. While initial public polling gave Mr. Bush the edge, Mr. Gore had scored a “win” among debating experts for articulating his arguments and organizing his thoughts and being more “natural.” He was knowledgeable but not overbearing about foreign policy.

More important, in their view, he had not made any more “exaggerations” or misstatements of fact. He had not been as cocky or patronizing or wonkish as he seemed in the first debate in Boston. His makeup was much better, and he didn't look over-rouged as many thought he did in Boston.

Gore aides are appalled that the man they know as bright and thoughtful and even, on occasion, highly fun-loving is still, months after the campaign began, battling the perception that he is arrogant, dull, harsh, and lacking in people skills.

Worse, they can't believe he's been tarnished with accusations that he's a prevaricator, or, as the Bush campaign has dubbed him, a “serial exaggerator.”

They think that in the second debate Mr. Gore shucked off much of the baggage that the Bush camp has tried to load on his back. He did not try to dominate. He did not demean Mr. Bush. He was assertive but polite.

A few hours later, a U.S. Navy destroyer was the apparent target of a deadly terrorist act, and more blood was being spilled in the Middle East. It was to President Clinton one of the most frustrating and maddening days of his presidency, as he watched years of work toward a peace pact disintegrate.

The outbreak of violence was a jarring reminder that the duty Americans have Nov. 7 to choose a new president is a solemn one. The president has the burden of conducting foreign affairs; when American sailors are being slaughtered, when Israeli soldiers are being stomped to death, and presidential residences are being bombed, cliches aren't enough.

Messrs. Bush and Gore do not have major disagreements of policy on Middle East peace and have so far avoided politicizing the compound tragedies there. But, in truth, they also have dealt only peripherally with the issue, meaning there is no way most voters could choose between them on the basis of what they think about the Middle East.

With less than a month before the Nov. 7 election, it's time to get beyond the idea that this election is about soulless, mindless frat-boy charm vs. anything-it-takes dweebiness.

Worried political experts (that sobriquet and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee) say the fact that the polls are so close indicates Americans may at the last minute go with their gut instincts and cast their votes on the basis of a candidate's persona.

But the close polls may indicate Americans know this is serious business and simply haven't decided yet which they want more -Mr. Gore's experience or Mr. Bush's personality. Polls also still indicate what they really want is what they can't have - Bill Clinton's brain power and political savvy without his faults.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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