Although the Thursday night debate in Florida among Republican presidential aspirants provided intense moments of entertainment when the candidates testily turned on one another, it came nowhere near providing the comic relief that a debate nearly 11 years ago between presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush offered.
The Republican debate in Orlando, sponsored by Fox News and Google in cooperation with the Florida Republican Party, featured questions submitted by just plain folks from across the country, via the Internet, as well as real-time polling on various questions. It was a format designed to address the concerns of grass-roots America before Republican primaries and caucuses that will choose a candidate to oppose President Barack Obama in 2012.
The debate, with online audience participation through a three-person moderator team of Fox News anchors, had a digital-age feel to it, a taste of campaign methodology to come as the world spins faster and whiz-bang improvements in communications continue apace.
By contrast, the Gore-Bush debate of Oct. 17, 2000, was a more traditional one-on-one event with a single moderator to ask the questions and keep things orderly. Still, the final of three debates in the series, held at Washington University in St. Louis, may have produced the modern-day gold standard for goofiness in political debate.
It came when Gore, at the time Bill Clinton’s vice president, strode from his onstage turf to invade the turf of Bush, governor of Texas — staring him down, up close and personal — as Bush prepared to answer a question from the in-house audience.
With perfect timing, Bush turned at the intrusion and did a double-take worthy of Charlie Chaplin in one of those golden-oldie slapstick comedies from the archives, drawing chuckles from the audience. Watching the bizarre encounter, many television viewers must have half-hoped the moment would degenerate into a classic Three Stooges finger-poke-in-the-eye and bop-on-the-head routine. But no such luck.
Larry and Moe pretty much stuck to the script the rest of the way — except for when Larry persisted in questioning Moe directly and the moderator advised him that he had violated his own rules for the debate. Not that the admonishment did much good, if memory serves.
Gore’s unorthodox encroachment maneuver likely was scripted by his handlers to show, one supposes, that the vice president was a take-charge guy not easily cowed by a swaggering, tough-talking Texan bent on giving tax breaks to his wealthy big-business pals. The other two debates between the two candidates featured dubious moments, as well.
A memorable one occurred when the discussion turned to the issue of poverty in America. Gore told of an allegedly destitute woman from the Midwest who allegedly was forced to forage for redeemable cans and bottles to supplement her meager income. When he said the woman had traveled with her dog to Boston in a Winnebago touring camper to attend the debate, it likely occurred to more than a few people in the national audience that if this was the new definition of poverty, it was little wonder that the country appeared to be going to hell in a hand basket. A relative of Winnebago Woman subsequently told a radio news reporter that the lady was more eccentric than poverty-stricken, and there went a good story.
Meanwhile, back in Orlando …
As expected, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, running ahead of the pack in national opinion polls, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a close second, went after each other on everything from Social Security and health care to immigration and whose book said what about pertinent issues of the day. Others struggling to gain traction in the polls — including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on the immigration issue — joined Romney in piling on Perry.
As the debate ran into its second hour, my notes showed Romney inadvertently offering an opening you could have driven a Sherman tank through. “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me,” he declared. “There are a lot of reasons not to elect other people on this stage. But one reason to elect me is I know what I stand for. I’ve written it down,” he said, referring to his book. “Words have meaning.”
Alas, the hour was late and people were getting fidgety, so no one thought to ask the man the obvious question: “Sir, granting your point that words have meaning, would you be so kind as to list some of the reasons not to elect you?”
Perhaps next time.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.