Gore prepares for debate with help from citizens

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Mock forum not in Bush's schedule

SARASOTA, Fla. – Al Gore, reaching far afield for debate advice, worked Sunday with a covey of aides and consultants and a dozen "special guests" drawn from across the country.

Other than two photo opportunities of only a few minutes each, the vice president either practiced debating at the Mote Marine Laboratory or conferred privately at an oceanfront condominium on nearby Longboat Key.

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"Everything's going well," he said, answering a reporter's shouted question outside the laboratory. But that's about all he had to say.

His Republican rival, George W. Bush, spent Sunday at his Central Texas ranch near Crawford, also preparing for Tuesday night's debate in Boston. Or, as spokesman Ari Fleischer explained, the governor was busy "chopping some cedar, cracking some books and relaxing."

He said the governor spent Sunday looking over his debate book and fielding questions with staffers, but did not do a full 90-minute mock debate as part of the preparation.

Mr. Bush leaves Monday morning for a campaign rally in Huntington, W.Va., a state that has only gone Republican in a presidential race three times since the 1920s.

In a series of meetings with reporters, Mr. Gore's top aides portrayed Tuesday's first debate – and the two that will follow – as crucial opportunities for him to reintroduce himself to the nation and to sell his platform, particularly the economic planks for continued prosperity and targeted middle-class tax relief.

"This is one of those opportunities where you can look the American people in the eye and tell them exactly what you believe in – the campaign equivalent of shaking someone's hand and allowing them to take the measure of you," said Mr. Gore's press secretary, Chris Lehane.

The Democratic presidential nominee arrived in Sarasota on Saturday evening and practiced debating at the Mote laboratory until nearly midnight.

On Sunday, he lunched with 12 of his special guests, then invited them to the laboratory to critique him during a mock debate.

"I just think you need to show your sincerity and your genuineness, your passion," said Susan Fadley, a kindergarten teacher in Columbus, Ohio.

Later, some of the guests told reporters that they were enjoying their hastily arranged trips to Florida and were convinced that the vice president was sincerely interested in their Middle American feedback.

"It's hard to believe that Al Gore and his campaign staff would go to this much trouble to bring us back here from various parts of the country if we merely were being used as props," said Katherine Cowan of Portland, Ore.

"Today has demonstrated to us at what a meaningful and direct level he is seeking input from ordinary citizens."

Staff writer Wayne Slater in Austin contributed to this report.