WASHINGTON _ “He didn't just say that!”
At the Democratic National Club, Adrien Zubrin has just heard George W. Bush proclaim that America should “fight and win war so we can prevent war” during the first presidential debate, and she can't believe it. She shakes her head as she listens to the Texas governor finish his response.
Zubrin, a political consultant for Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, has joined several of her Democratic colleagues to watch their candidate debate Bush.
“This is a very happy group right now,” she says. “We really believe we are going to win.”
The group, which has been talking among itself in disapproving tones as Bush speaks, grows silent for Gore's rebuttal. They are almost always silent for the vice president, only occasionally erupting into roaring applause for one of his responses.
This, however, is not one of those responses. In fact, the group stays silent until Bush's next mistake, when the governor tells moderator Jim Lehrer that “there is differences” between the candidates. The crowd bursts into approving laughter at the grammatical lapse.
All of Bush's verbal gaffes get this response, from his statement that at-risk children “can't learn” to his clumsy assertion that Gore apparently “invented the calculator.” Gore's mistakes, however – such as tacking an extra $600 billion onto Bush's tax cut plan and mispronouncing a girl's name in one of his now-famous anecdotes – are either not noticed or shrugged off as inconsequential.
“I think (Gore) was very prepared,” Zubrin says after the debate. “He appeared very relaxed.”
Her colleagues are equally quick to praise the vice president's performance.
“I think he did great. He looked very presidential,” volunteer Dan Lipner says. “But he was more restrained than I think I could have been.”
“He showed strong leadership and a command of the issues that Bush didn't,” fellow volunteer Bracken Hendricks adds.
Feedback is not all positive after the debate, though, as Zubrin notes that the Republicans' strategy of lowering expectations for their candidate's performance may have worked.
“I think he held his own,” she says. “I think the classical Republicans will be pleased.”
In the end, though, Zubrin concludes that the debate will have very little effect on the outcome of the election.
“I doubt more than 16 minds were changed tonight.”