With polls over the weekend showing Al Gore and George W. Bush in a statistical dead heat in the Presidential race, tonight's first of three Presidential debates promises to draw a large and interested audience. Not since the election of 1976 when Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford has the race been this close going into a major debate. With the stakes so high, both sides are trying to lower expectations so as to be able to claim victory afterward. Staffers for Governor Bush have called Al Gore "the best political debater of modern times," while Gore has taken on several "real people" acquired along the campaign trail to serve as "advisors" for the debate in the hopes of showing what the national press has dubbed Gore's "human side." During the debate, Bush, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, will have the onus of showing that he has sufficient grasp of the issues to be President. A gaffe such as not knowing the President of Chechnya could be costly. Gore, on the other hand, must avoid coming across as stiff and mean-spirited -- perceptions that, for some, characterized his demeanor in the primary debates with Senator Bill Bradley. Some analysts also believe that Gore needs to make headway against the desire for change that, in the wake of the Clinton scandals, polls show most voters have. While the debate will be closely analyzed by pundits and dexterously spun by both camps, a decisive blow for either candidate is unlikely. Only time will tell if these debates take their place in history as relatively unimportant in determining the outcome of a close election, as was the case in 1976, or as a deciding factor as happened in the even closer election of 1960 when John F. Kennedy's well-groomed, telegenic presence gave him a crucial edge over a sweaty Richard Nixon.


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