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Gore, Bush, Brace for Final Debate

October 17, 2000

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore were braced for a final and crucial third debate, each ready to claim a stool and make his pitch to a town-hall audience of undecided voters Tuesday night.

However, the death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in a small airplane crash Monday evening cast a pall of gloom and uncertainty over the event.

Catherine Hanaway, Missouri coordinator for the Bush campaign, said shortly after the crash that discussions were underway about whether the debate should be postponed or canceled and Gore spokeswoman Alex Zaroulis said plans were ``uncertain at this time.″

``We’re all waking up, honestly, to the tragedy and the pain of it and the shock of it,″ Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman said Tuesday morning on CNN. ``I’m going to leave it to the folks in charge of the debate to decide what should happen tonight.″

With the larger bloc of uncommitted voters across the nation apparently holding the key to the election, both candidates were clearly mindful of the high stakes if the encounter goes forward as planned.

The informal question-and-answer format is one Gore is comfortable with, and he promised on Monday to ``just have an open meeting,″ as he had done many times before.

Bush, who has less formal debate experience than the vice president but whose standing in public opinion polls rose after the first two face-offs, vowed to ``just tell it like it is.″

Both Gore and the Texas governor planned a low-key day in advance of their 9 p.m. EDT televised debate, the concluding one of the campaign.

They both planned to visit the hall for a mike check. And Laura Bush, the candidate’s wife, planned to preside over a morning rally here.

The election is Nov. 7, just three weeks from now.

The debate will be held on the campus of Washington University.

While the moderator will be the same as in the Boston and Winston-Salem, N.C., debates _ Jim Lehrer of PBS _ questions this time will come from the audience.

The Gallup polling organization, assigned by the Commission on Presidential Debates to recruit questioners, started with a random sample of all registered voters in St. Louis and its suburbs, and then screened out all but ``uncommitted voters,″ said Frank Newport, Gallup’s executive editor.

The result was a group of area voters who say they could support either Gore or Bush _ though they might be leaning one way or the other.

The theater-in-the-round stage will be informally set with two stools and surrounded by 100 questioners and an additional 500 onlookers.

Tuesday night’s debate marks the beginning of the final stretch.

And, with polls continuing to show the race to be neck-and-neck, any stumble could have major impact on a contest in which both candidates are fiercely wooing a dwindling band of undecided voters.

Gore held a mock debate on Monday, inviting 23 voters to the Innsbrook resort outside St. Louis to help him practice.

``I’m going to do what I’ve done a lot of times in Tennessee, and that is, just have an open meeting,″ Gore said.

In 16 years in Congress, Gore held some 1,000 town meetings with Tennessee constituents, and they’ve become a regular feature of his presidential campaign.

After an uncharacteristically muted demeanor in last week’s debate, Gore, was looking to do better this time.

``I don’t think you play it safe,″ said Gore’s campaign chairman, William Daley, previewing the Tuesday night encounter. ``I think you try to be very natural and lay out in a forward way the compelling reasons for the election to go your way.″

Bush had long resisted the town-hall-style session, but in recent weeks on the campaign trail has been doing them almost daily.

``I’ve felt comfortable about it,″ the Republican said Monday. He said he believed he had more to offer swing voters than his rival.

Campaigning late Monday in Bridgetown, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Bush predicted that his consistent style would resonate with swing voters.

``A lot of people are interested in somebody whose going to just tell it like it is _ not try to be one thing in one debate and something else in the next debate,″ Bush said.

Both candidates engaged in some unscripted ballet in their practice sessions with their stools.

Gore edged around his, then finally pushed it out of the way in his debate practice.

Bush ``practiced perching,″ said spokeswoman Karen Hughes ``He had a chance to practice sitting on the stool, getting off the stool, getting up and walking, relating to the questioner,″ she said.

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