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Gore campaign aide Brian Reich carries the campaign's debate mascot shark off Air Force Two at Logan Airport this afternoon. The shark is on loan from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where it hung over Gore's recent debate preparation sessions. (Reuters)

Gore, Bush square off for first time: 'It's game day'

By Sandra Sobieraj, Associated Press, 10/03/00

BOSTON -- George W. Bush declared himself "Ready to go" and Al Gore's supporters cheered, "It's game day, go get 'em" as the presidential contenders faced off in debate for the first time, exactly five weeks before Election Day.

George Bush George W. Bush arrives at Logan Airport today.
(Globe Photo / Bill Greene)

Tuesday night's duel of words at the University of Massachusetts -- before a TV audience estimated as high as 75 million -- came with voters appearing evenly split between promoting the Democratic vice president or giving Republican Bush a chance to follow the White House path of his father.

"This is a big night in the campaign, no matter how you look at it. This is a close election," said Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, as he made the rounds of the network TV pre-debate shows.

Chief Bush strategist Karl Rove said that his man, aside from proving he had the ability to be president, also aimed to trump the often-combative Gore on bipartisanship, showing voters Bush could "work across lines with Republicans and Democrats alike to achieve."

Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney debate Thursday night in Kentucky, then Bush and Gore meet again on Oct. 11 and 17. Election Day is Nov. 7.

To keep the candidates cool, university officials turned the thermostat inside the Clark Athletic Center gym well below 65 degrees. That's the show-time temperature, once the lights were flipped on and seats filled, that was required under contract by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The bipartisan group is sponsoring all four debates with the idea that they will be shown on as many TV networks as possible. Most were carrying the first one, but NBC gave its affiliates a choice between the baseball playoffs and the debate, while FOX went with its series premiere of "Dark Angel."

Veteran PBS newsman Jim Lehrer was moderator.

A New York Times/CBS News poll underscored the depth of at least one stereotype that Bush was hoping to erase through the prime-time debate: that he is too green for the job.

In the survey, 71 percent of respondents said Gore, a former congressman and senator, had "prepared himself well enough for the job of president." Just 49 percent associated that quality with Bush, the former oil company executive and managing partner of baseball's Texas Rangers who has served nearly six years as Texas governor.

On issues, Bush held a clear advantage over Gore when respondents were asked who would lower taxes and keep the nation's military defenses strong. Gore was overwhelmingly favored on questions of making health care more affordable and being able to negotiate effectively with world leaders.

Early on debate day, Gore had stayed inside the Florida beach bungalow he used for "debate camp," while Bush indulged in a run and a nap in West Virginia. The 9 p.m. debate start was just half an hour before Bush's usual 9:30 p.m. bedtime.

"Ready to go," Bush told reporters as he made his way to Boston from a campaign stop in heavily Democratic West Virginia.

He joked about turning up in "early Regis wear," a reference to game-show host Regis Philbin's monochromatic attire.

Just kidding, Bush hastened to add. "Tonight's not the night for gimmicks. Tonight's the night to talk about hard, compassionate issues." He blew kisses to office workers watching him leave his Huntington, W.Va., hotel.

Gore, by contrast, uttered no public words as his motorcade pulled out of Florida's Longboat Key resort Tuesday morning. Supporters greeted him with a bedsheet spraypainted: "It's game day, go get 'em!"

Both Bush and Gore hoped to ride fresh momentum into key battleground states on Wednesday, with Gore headed to Ohio and Bush to Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Preparing for the next debates, Lieberman joked, "We've gone through training camp. I feel as if I'm a boxer this week. We do a little 'Rocky.' We, you know, run up and down the stairs."