I am not by nature a combative person, but I can definitely be a fighter when I have something to fight for. In this case, I was ready to get aggressive again in the debate with Cheney, because the differences between his record and mine and Al's were so stark. But surprisingly, the pollsters and consultants counseled otherwise. Their survey and focus group results were clear. The public doesn't want another antagonistic debate. They're tired of nastiness; they crave a civil face-off. Good enough, I said to them, I wasn't planning to be mean-spirited or personally abusive, but I assume I should call attention to Cheney's far right record when he was in Congress; you'll want me to tell people he voted against Head Start? Against a free Nelson Mandela resolution? No, they said. The public feels that all happened too long ago. Even if we believe it's relevant to what kind of vice president he'd be? No, the pollsters said, if you throw old votes at him, the public will react negatively. (I was amused remembering how Lowell Weicker had responded to my closing the lead he had on me with a few weeks left in the campaign: he attacked votes I had cast seventeen years before. It almost worked.)
Along the way, we watched and analyzed good televised debates (bad ones, too) in national campaigns. It helped. Gore versus Quayle in 1992. I was told how upset President Clinton had been with Al because he felt Al had failed to stand up sufficiently for him against Quayle's attacks in that debate. That was worth remembering.
Gore versus Kemp. There, Gore tended to repeat catchphrases a bit often, we noticed, but he was nevertheless very disciplined, very effective. We watched Bentsen turn that wonderful line on Quayle, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." And in pained silence we watched a tape from 1988, when Mike Dukakis, who opposed capital punishment, gave a wooden, canned response to CNN's Bernard Shaw's provocative and direct question: If someone raped and killed your wife, would you change your position and advocate the death penalty for her attacker? Shaw was scheduled to moderate the debate between me and Dick Cheney. God only knew what he was cooking up for us.
On Sunday evening, October 1, with four days to go before the debate, I left the campaign trail for final, intensive debate training. Danville, Kentucky, is a lovely little town in the beautiful bluegrass country, ninety minutes south of Lexington. The campaign rented an old mansion owned by Eastern Kentucky University in the isolated hills of the nearby town of Richmond. Jon called this our debate camp, but because I'm a boxing fan, I said it felt like a boxer's training camp. So someone quickly made up a T-shirt for me that said "Fighting Joe Lieberman" on the front and "The Champ" on the back. They even found a book called When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport, by Allen Bodner, with tales of Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, "Battling" Levinsky, and "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom — all of whom boxed before my time. My boxing heroes were Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and, of course, Muhammad Ali.