ST. LOUIS - Three times they met. Three times they squabbled. Three times they left us confused about who would do what with us, for us, to us - take your pick.
Despite their legions of detractors, the debates did serve a purpose. We know:
There are at least three views of the debates. One is that they were boring but necessary to the democratic process. The second view is that the debates did little good because the two men fenced so much that even the experts aren't certain what they really said. The third view is that although there are still millions of undecided voters, the debates were intelligent encounters that informed voters about each man's view of the issues.
One thing is for certain. Bush supporters thought their man won. Gore supporters were convinced their fellow scored more points.
What is alarming, however, is that so many people are saying they don't like either candidate and probably won't vote. The next president could be elected by only one-fourth of those eligible to vote - not a great start for a new administration.
Journalists love the fact that the race is so close and could go to either man. But it's not good for the country that either man might win depending on one slip of the tongue, one smirk too many, one sigh deemed too sarcastic, one exaggeration too bald.
The debates were supposed to be “crucial.” Now the next two weeks are crucial, deciding which face will be in front of us every day for the next four years and whose thoughts will dominate national policy.
From now on, undecided voters will rely on their gut instincts. Some will choose Mr. Gore as a man who really does know government, who desperately wants to win, and is like a bulldog when he gets his teeth around a belief he holds passionately. They won't mind his tendency to exaggerate as he clumsily woos us, his know-it-all demeanor, his efforts to explain the punch line to death.
Some will prefer Mr. Bush's amiability, his laid-back Reaganesque management style, his refusal to get bogged down in details in favor of a broader sweep of the rhetorical brush, the feeling that if he doesn't win, he'll be just as happy. Those voters won't mind his mangled syntax, his indifference to reading, the way he sometimes glosses over things he doesn't quite understand.
There is one thought that may be comforting as we weigh our choices on Nov. 7. Men grow into the job of president, partly because of the trappings of the awesome office and partly because the weight of responsibility transforms them and partly because Americans want their presidents to succeed.
The personality quirks that irritate us so much right now as we ponder the decision of which man to wed our futures to will, amazingly, become less annoying when “Hail to the Chief” rings out.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at email@example.com.