LOS ANGELES - With the last balloons popped from Republican and Democratic conventions, the Bush and Gore campaigns are diving into negotiations over when and where their candidates should meet to debate this autumn.
Three debates proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in October would be in North Carolina, Missouri, and Massachusetts, with a vice presidential candidates' debate in Kentucky. The issue now is which other invitations, if any, the two camps agree to accept.
And those negotiations will be tough. While the candidates say they are eager for the encounters, such minor issues as the makeup of the audience, the panel of questioners, and even the furniture in the room can stall agreement for weeks.
Bush campaign spokesman Karen Hughes said last week that Mr. Bush will agree to three debates and his running mate Dick Cheney will participate in two, one more than the commission recommended and one more than is traditional.
Gore chairman Bill Daley responded, "We welcome Governor Bush's newfound interest in debates. As he knows, Al Gore has been ready to debate for months and has accepted dozens of debate proposals already.''
Mr. Daley said Mr. Gore wants more than three debates but at least those debates set by the commission should be agreed to by the Bush campaign.
"The goal of our campaign will be simple: to set up the greatest number of debates, in forums accessible to the greatest number of voters, starting at the soonest possible time. The American people deserve no less,'' Mr. Daley said.
The acceptance speeches by Mr. Bush in Philadelphia and Mr. Gore in Los Angeles proved that the Texas governor, whose father was president but was defeated in his final re-election bid, and the Vice President, whose father was a U.S. senator defeated in his final re-election bid, will present voters with a definite choice Nov. 7.
They have opposite positions on abortion, taxes, Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs, health care, gun control, and education.
Mr. Gore wants to maintain legal abortion, opposes a broad-based tax cut, is against turning Social Security over to the private sector, wants prescription drugs for all seniors under Medicare, wants health care coverage for all Americans, wants more controls on guns, and is opposed to school vouchers.
Mr. Bush opposes abortion, wants a broad tax cut which would include wealthy Americans, wants to experiment with letting workers put some of their Social Security taxes into the stock market, is opposed to getting the federal government more involved in health care, is opposed to new gun control legislation, and favors school vouchers.
Mr. Gore's speech Thursday fired up the party faithful at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, but he still found it necessary to take his entourage on a boat trip down the Mississippi trying to shore up states President Clinton easily won in 1996, including Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush stormed into Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee on Friday in a dramatic effort to show that he thinks he has a chance to win there. If he does, the election would be a blowout for Mr. Bush, and Democrats think Mr. Bush is being too cocky.
Democrats are eager to puncture the aura around Mr. Bush that he has the charisma and personality to win, while Mr. Gore, more experienced and adept in the ins and outs of policy, seems stiff and unappealing to many voters.
Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and a gifted speaker, once observed that politicians campaign in poetry but must govern in prose. Mr. Gore, however, seems to be forced to campaign in both genres. He is resting his quest for the White House on the premise that if voters focus on specific issues as Mr. Gore frames them he will fare better than if the race turns on more visceral concerns, such as who seems a more dynamic leader or who is more personable.
But at the same time the Democratic convention was structured to try to erase Mr. Gore's image as wooden and calculating and give him a facelift as a well rounded, caring father, husband, and friend.
All week delegates and television viewers heard personal testimonials to what a swell guy Mr. Gore is. That cult of personality climaxed with the speeches from his daughter, his college roommate, the biographical photo essay from his wife, Tipper, and finally the passionate embrace they shared on stage.
In a 13-page speech, probably deemed forever to be called the "I stand here tonight as my own man'' speech, Mr. Gore at the very end said what many had been hoping to hear.
"I know my own imperfections,'' Mr. Gore said. "I know that sometimes people say I am too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I've done that tonight.
"But the presidency is more than a popularity contest. It's a day-by-day fight for people. Sometimes, you have to choose to do what's difficult or unpopular. Sometimes, you have to be willing to spend your popularity in order to pick the hard right over the easy wrong.''
Mr. Clinton wowed the convention its opening night with a long list of accomplishments claimed for his administration. But Mr. Gore's admission is something Mr. Clinton never has and never could say.
Mr. Gore, paradoxically but shrewdly, proclaimed his lack of concern for political popularity while working his way through a list of positions calculated to be extremely popular with the delegates. From a hike in the minimum wage to abortion rights to gun control, he could boast that he had offered specifics and substance.
What won't be known until after Labor Day, when voters traditionally start paying attention to the presidential campaign, is how well Mr. Gore is going over with all-important swing voters - those independents who are still mulling which man they prefer and whether they'll vote at all.
The polls are closing, but they are still meaningless. Not until more people pay attention will pollsters start taking readings that reflect what might happen.
But the style and strategy reflect in Philadelphia and Los Angeles set the tone for what is to come.
Mr. Bush's performance reflected his confidence that he has won over core Republicans. Polls suggest most Republicans plan to vote for him, so he was able to reach out for independents with such phrases as "compassionate conservatism'' that initially offended such staunch Republicans as Sen. John McCain. But there was a method in Mr. Bush's words - appeal to women who traditionally have viewed GOP doctrine as too rigid and uncaring toward people's problems.
Mr. Gore's convention rhetoric, in contrast, showed a candidate still worried about nurturing his political base - women, African- Americans, union members. As late as the afternoon of the speech, the Rev. Jesse Jackson complained that Mr. Gore needed to do more to reassure traditional Democrats before casting his net wider for independent votes.
Mr. Gore lauded initiatives and positions favored by moderates exemplified by the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party, such as welfare reform and fiscal discipline. But he emphasized themes and programs cherished by liberal Democrats. He talked of the need to defend the landmark abortion decision Roe vs. Wade; he underscored his commitment to affirmative action and an end to discrimination against gays, and he brought liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to his feet with his promise to work to the goal of universal health care.
Mr. Gore dealt with the tricky trade issue, where he is diametrically opposed to most union members who fear what free trade might do to their jobs, with rhetoric that could appease them.
"We must welcome and promote truly free trade,'' Mr. Gore said. "But I say to you it must be fair trade - a way to lift everyone up, not to bring everyone down to the least common denominator.''
That issue is at the heart of another major challenge for Mr. Gore, and another difference between the potential dynamics of his campaign and Mr. Bush's. Ralph Nader, candidate of the Green Party, has the potential to hurt Mr. Gore in states he must win such as California, Washington, and Oregon.
Mr. Nader is viewed in such states, among environmentalists and foes of big business and big power bases, as a hero and not just as a way to vote against Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush. In a close race, the loss by Mr. Gore of 2 to 5 per cent of the total vote in any of those states could cost him the election.
Thus he will revert to his plea that global warming is a threat to the world, a claim that Bush ridicules as environmental extremism. But it is a threat that Mr. Nader's supporters take seriously.
But after the contentious Reform Party convention in Long Beach just before the Democratic convention, Pat Buchanan seemed less a threat to Mr. Bush than before the convention. Because the party is so divided he must now go to court to see whether he can have the more than $12 million in taxpayer money to which the Reform Party is entitled. It will be a divisive, messy fight, and by week's end Mr. Buchanan has sunk to less than 1 per cent of the polls.
Mr. Bush's people had no regrets after their carefully orchestrated convention two weeks ago in Philadelphia. It ran on time, the balloons fell properly, and Mr. Bush's speech was judged a success.
In contrast, Mr. Clinton's dynamic speech Monday would have had a wider audience if it had not gone on until 11:40 p.m., because he followed so many other speakers. The next day, Ed Rendell, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was livid. "Who were the geniuses who managed that?'' he groused in an off-camera conversation with Paul Begala, a former Democratic strategist. "It was an abomination; an abomination.''
The final weeks of the campaign offer a better chance to engage the public and through forums considered to be strengths for Mr. Gore, particularly the debates. Ross Perot never recovered from his showdown with Mr. Gore over the North American Free Trade Agreement. Then in 1996 in St. Petersburg, Fla., he clobbered Bob Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp.
If the presidential debate commission has its way, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore will meet Oct. 3 for their first debate. But in politics, a lot can happen between now and then.