Within our campaign, all this caused an outbreak of anxiety at the end of September as we began to slip in the polls. But that dissipated when Bush was badgered into accepting the challenge to debate Gore — in fact, to debate him three times. Great, we thought, we'll win those straying voters back when we get to the debates in October. Al is an excellent debater, and there is no way the governor of Texas can gain comparable confidence with the facts a president faces in such a short time. As for me, I'd had my share of campaign debates, and I'd learned a lot from them. In 1988, my debate performances had been crucial to my narrow win over Senator Weicker. I had proved I could get in the ring with the pro and not only hold my own, but land some punches. That, to our surprise, was what Bush ended up doing to Gore in 2000.
The one vice presidential debate would be held on October 5 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, a small liberal arts school in Danville, Kentucky. Although the stakes were higher in the three presidential debates, I naturally wanted to do as well as I possibly could to help the ticket.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it apparently takes an army to prepare a vice presidential debater, or so I learned in 2000. Jonathan Sallet was our general. He'd worked on Al Gore's debate training teams in 1992 and 1996. ("I hold the American political record for the most days lodged in a vice presidential debate camp," says Jonathan.) Sheryl Wilkerson, a Washington attorney, left the FCC early in September to work with Jon, heading up a team that did debate research, and put together an issues book for me. It was big. It not only contained the basic papers on the widest range of issues, but it also included every position I had ever taken on any issue and the Gore campaign's position on all the issues.
It wasn't enough to simply be on track with the Gore campaign. I needed to be able to defend and advance each and every position the campaign espoused, and to do so in a short, crisp, affirmative way.
The preparation was more extensive than anything I had ever experienced. But remember, the debate would be the third and final big moment of opportunity for me to make a real difference in the campaign.
Beginning in September — even before we knew whether the debates would occur and, if so, where and when — we crammed tutorial sessions into those rare times on planes or in hotel rooms when I had a few hours free. So I carried my briefing book everywhere. Jonathan seized chunks of time in the strangest places, suddenly appearing at a hotel where we were staying in Miami, just as the sun set on Saturday, for three evening hours of debate prep. Another time he worked his way into the schedule on a Friday afternoon in Chicago for two hours before the sun set. That time he brought a mock opponent and we had a practice debate.
Meanwhile, we worked together to strategize and analyze my opponent's vulnerabilities. Should I take on Cheney or focus my attacks on Bush? We studied tapes of Cheney's television appearances and analyzed ones from my Senate campaigns. I was surprised at how aggressive I'd been in my 1988 debates in the Senate race with Senator Lowell Weicker. A campaign strategist — probably Carter Eskew, maybe the late Bob Squier — said to me back then, You know, you've got to convince the voters of Connecticut to fire Weicker and hire you. I'd clearly taken their advice to heart — and it had worked.