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Political stage is set for three-way power play

Prepare to be charmed.

While the presidential candidates show off their knowledge of the issues in tonight's first debate, the greater goal will be to reassure American voters that the three of them aren't such bad guys.

Most voters have not been pleased with the choices in this election. President Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot are thoroughly unpopularamong American voters, and as many people dislike as like Bill Clinton, although he's running an average 14 points ahead in the polls.

The three presidential debates in the next nine days may be the last chance for Bush to salvage his presidency and the last chance for Clinton to prove he is trustworthy.

"The American people are looking for someone who is imminently human, who really feels for America," said Lloyd Pettigrew, a former pollster and professor of communication at the University of South Florida.

Debates have produced some of the most memorable soundbites of recent elections. (Ronald Reagan: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Lloyd Bentsen: "You're no Jack Kennedy.") But conventional wisdom is that debates don't change minds, they only reinforce the support candidates already have.

This year could be different because it's a three-way race and because so many voters are undecided or squeamish about the candidates. Thirty percent of voters said in a USA Today/CNN poll that the debates could influence them.

The debates also will be the first chance for Perot to demonstrate exactly why he rejoined the race Oct. 1 after taking the summer off. Does he really want to be president? Does he only want to destroy Bush? Maybe he declared his candidacy just so he could air commercials and join the debates. Maybe, as he says, he wants to force a more serious discussion of the country's economic problems.

"People who are sick of an impotent president and a slick guy who says yes to everybody may say, well, Perot's kind of a jerk and an egomaniac but he's not so bad. He's not cut from the same cloth. He's willing to take people on. He's willing to try new ideas," said Pettigrew at USF.

Each candidate can be witty and bright, and each can be insufferable. So part of the suspense will be to see which sides of their personalities are on display.

Perhaps the worst that could happen would be for a candidate to reinforce the negative image that voters already have of him. Bush mustn't whine, Clinton can't waffle and Perot must control his temper.

They will all feign righteous indignation about one thing or another, but it's unlikely the viewers will see any real acrimony. Even though Bush says campaigning this year has been the ugliest in his memory, the candidates have probably rehearsed clever zingers, not outright insults.

If Bush attacks Clinton too harshly, he'll only look desperate. If Clinton insults the president, he'll appear disrespectful. And if Perot cuts loose, he'll lose any remaining credibility for his claim that he's a servant of the people, not a wealthy tyrant.

"He who acts like the biggest jerk is not always the winner, even though they monopolize the conversation," Pettigrew said.

Clinton faces the highest expectations in the debates. This is his chance to prove that he really is a leader of substance, not a slick tax maniac. Watch for him to hammer on the dismal economy at every opportunity, reminding people why they're mad at Bush.

Voters already know Clinton to be glib and fast on his feet, and Bush has hyped the "Oxford man" as a skilled debater, deftly lowering expectations for himself. But Bush is good at debates, too.

"For all the flak he takes about the way he verbalizes, he does seem to get up for these big events," said James Bernstein of Indiana University, who wrote News Verdicts, the Debates and Presidential Campaigns. "He's always come across to me as someone who is very knowledgeable, well-prepared."

Bush will probably bring the same themes to the debates that he uses in his stump speeches: The economy isn't so bad, the world is mostly at peace and Democrats in power would take the country straight down the tubes, economically and morally. Expect him to talk about "principles" a lot.

"It seems to me that he has a fine line to walk," Bernstein said, "in that he has to appear presidential _ for obvious reasons; he's the president _ and yet he's faced with a situation in which in order to score points, he may have to attack or get nasty.

"I've noticed him on the stump in the last couple of weeks sort of flailing. I hate to say this, but he's almost become a caricature of himself. It was almost as if (comedian) Dana Carvey was up there doing the imitation."

Bush's aides have complained that voters can't seem to hear him this year. Others think the voters hear him but don't believe a word he says.

Clinton has the same problem. He has been caught in enough white lies that even his supporters are waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Bush plays that to the hilt.

But quarreling about credibility puts all the candidates on thin ice. There's draft-dodging for Clinton vs. Iran-Contra for Bush. Bush promised not to raise taxes; Clinton flops like a fish on the free trade agreement. And Perot, well, is he really in the race or isn't he?

It could all be very tiresome, but the candidates won't be alone on the stage. The direction of the debates will be set by the journalists asking questions.

Obnoxious as journalists sometimes seem, they might at least know enough to catch the candidates in bald-faced lies. They're also aware that everyone is expecting them to preen and pontificate, so they probably won't do it.

With luck, they'll stick to questions about the country's future rather than dwell on campaign methods or even character questions.

"That's the virtue of journalists on panels," said Ellen Hume of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

"It's saying to these candidates: Let's talk about the real issues, because you guys are just talking about flags and mother and apple pie. I will be shocked if the candidates feel they can talk about symbolic issues rather than substance for most of these debates."

The debate tonight may be the most important one, especially if a candidate says something really mean or stupid. The media will pick it up, the other candidates will hammer on it at subsequent debates and it will become the story of the week.

Sometimes that's the only way to see behind the candidates' carefully rehearsed facades.

"I think people do really hunger for some kind of truth, even though it's the truth of a stammering, evasive reply, or the loss of cool," Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at the Johns Hopkins University, told the Baltimore Sun.

"But let's not get sentimental. There's also the desire to watch, to crane your neck at a traffic accident. People are hoping for a disaster."

TONIGHT'S DEBATE: WHAT TO WATCH FOR

GEORGE BUSH

The image to project

Presidential, in touch

The pitfalls to avoid

No whining, no desperation, not partisan

The talking points

Communism is dead

Economy isn't all bad

Experience is good

Desert Storm

Clinton and Congress: America's nightmare team

Attacks on Clinton's Arkansas record

Attacks of Clinton's patriotism

Attacks on clinton's inconsistencies

BILL CLINTON

The image to project

Presidential, trustworthy

The pitfalls to avoid

No waffling, no mistakes, not reckless

The talking points

Change is needed

Sympathy for middle class

Investment in the future, global economy

Health care

Attacks on tricke-down economy

Attacks on Bush's broken promises

Attacks on Bush for indifference to working people

Attacks on Bush's foreign policies

ROSS PEROT

The image to prject

Credible, humble

The pitfalls to avoid

No patronizing, no outbursts, not a crackpot

The talking points

Promise to lower the deficit

Sympathy for working people

No one else is telling truth

No one else asks for sacrifice

Attacks on Bush, maybe Clinton

Attacks on Congress, lobbyists

Attacks on reporters

Conspiracy theories

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