Little ventured, little gained–the first Gore-Bush debate featured both candidates at their usual. No breakouts, no bold thrusts. The face-off reflected the narrow parameters of the campaign, with Al Gore and George W. Bush jabbing at each other on a small number of poll-tested fronts–a drug prescription plan for the elderly, Social Security and education. (There was, for example, no discussion of trade-related matters or how to provide healthcare to uninsured adults and children.) Prior to the much-hyped event, blacked out by Fox and NBC (the latter eventually said local affiliates could show it), the bearers of conventional wisdom had decided Gore’s task was to show he was more likable than his caricature and Bush’s challenge was to persuade undecided voters he was more presidential (read: not dumb) than his late-night-talk-show image. Ninety minutes of back-and-forth demonstrated that neither could easily recast himself, which is, ultimately, somewhat reassuring. A smuggish Gore was trying too hard to show he’s smart as a whip; an edgy Bush was trying too hard to prove he’s not a lightweight. It wasn’t pretty to watch.

When the debate ended, it was hard to tell if it had mattered. Each contestant had, with limited eloquence, played familiar refrains. Gore offered a Clinton-like New/Old Democrat mix: Balance the budget, pay down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, cut taxes for some middle-class families, protect children against “cultural pollution,” invest in the environment. Bush, who had earlier branded himself “a different kind of Republican,” dished out his own New/Old Republican stew. He led with a GOP classic, his tax cut for all (“I’m not going to be a pick-and-chooser”). He pushed his plan to privatize part of Social Security and blasted Gore for being an inside-the-Beltway, big-government liberal eager to unleash 20,000 new bureaucrats on the citizenry. Then Bush championed his own education and drug prescription proposals and soft-pedaled his antiabortion stand.

Gore boasted that his economic plan devotes more of the coming surpluses to the military than Bush’s budget. Bush spent more time discussing Medicare than any previous GOP presidential candidate. In the Clinton era, both parties engage in political copyright infringement. On points–as they say–Gore probably won. The semi-sanctimonious know-it-all effectively attacked Bush’s various proposals, noting repeatedly that Bush’s tax cut benefits the well-to-do. Bush hardly soared when discussing foreign policy, national security and how to handle a financial crisis. (Get me Greenspan!) Yet a less-smirkful Bush spoke in complete sentences and avoided the worst Bushisms. (He did say of Social Security, “I want you to have your own assets that you can call your own.”) Those predisposed to either could find reasons to stick with their man; those caught in between or disgusted with both were still out of luck.

This debate could have been boiled down to ten minutes apiece of yada yada yada talking points. Still, a thousand journalists had assembled in the hockey rink adjacent to the Nader- and Buchanan-free debate hall at University of Massachusetts, Boston. And they had to be fed. Anheuser-Busch, one of the corporate sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, did so liberally, serving up free food, free beer and Foosball to the scribes in a hospitality tent that contained multiple Budweiser signs and a display trumpeting the company’s community programs–not its lobbying campaign against lowering the DWI threshold. And dozens of pols and spinners were present to feed the journalists quotes. Before the debate, Bush and Gore campaign surrogates (George Pataki for the Republicans and Robert Reich for the Democrats, among others) promenaded through the media center dropping predictable lines. At the same time, several dozen Ralph Nader supporters, who were protesting his exclusion from the debates at the entrance to the school, were engaged in a near-tussle with some of the hundreds of union workers who had been bused in to wave Gore signs. The Naderites shouted, “A vote for Gore is a vote for Bush! Gore is antiunion, and you’re blind! We’re fighting for higher wages and for you!” The union members replied, “Freaks, freaks! Get a job! I’m making twenty-six dollars an hour, and that’s pretty damn good!”

Ten minutes before the debate concluded with Gore’s vow to fight the “powerful forces”–did he mean the sponsors of the debate, like Ford, which sells SUVs with exploding tires?–the true spin parade began. The big-shot campaign aides and surrogates, accompanied by escorts holding banners bearing their names, filed into the media hall to declare (in soundbites) their candidate the winner. This was what reporters refer to as “spin alley,” but it was more of a sluice pit. Gore campaign chairman William Daley maintained that the Vice President’s performance had been “solid.” Republican Representative Jennifer Dunn asserted that Bush “got to the peak of his performance when talking about tax policy.” Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling handed out copies of Bush’s Medicare plan to prove that, yes, Gore was correct when he stated that Bush’s proposal does not cover all seniors immediately. Bush überstrategist Karl Rove hissed at Gore for being “condescending” and used “in command” repeatedly to describe Bush’s performance. And in the swarm, J.C. Watts Jr., Alexis Herman, Donna Brazile, John Engler, Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice, Judd Gregg, Harold Ford Jr., Kate Michelman and others twisted the night away, spinning for about as long as the debate had run. In this mob, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that the next debate’s format–candidates seated at a table rather than standing behind podiums–would present a more favorable setting for Bush. And, Fleischer added, he sure was looking forward to that. The question is, after this debate, How many other Americans are? David Corn