Al Gore had pretty much set a new standard for debate preparation in 1992 and 1996. At his debate camp they'd constructed a set that replicated the actual setting for the debate, down to the placement of the cameras. I was reluctant to go that far. Still, Sallet and company determined the measurement of the half-moon table at which we'd sit with CNN's Bernard Shaw, and they copied the chairs we'd be sitting in, so it would feel as familiar as possible when I walked out on that stage.
Monday night before the real debate on Thursday, we held the first of our practice debates. Jonathan kept the crowd small. Bob Barnett, my friend and lawyer, happens to be the Cal Ripken of political debate. His first mock vice presidential debate was in 1976, when he was part of the team that prepped Fritz Mondale for his debate with Bob Dole. Barnett worked with Mondale again in 1980, and in 1984 he ran the training for Geraldine Ferraro's debate with George Herbert Walker Bush. In 1988 he was a member of the team training Dukakis against Bush, again, and in 1992 he played Bush in at least twenty prep debates with Bill Clinton. In 1996, Barnett's wife, CBS correspondent Rita Braver, was covering the White House, so Bob had to recuse himself. But in 2000 he was back in a big way: as a member of Hillary Rodham Clinton's team, he played her opponent, Representative Rick Lazio, and in my camp he was Dick Cheney.
In that first practice, my ego took an early beating.
Barnett's Cheney was brilliant — and shockingly well-informed. No matter what question the moderator threw at him, he nailed it. I had a moment of panic, then I looked across the mock debate table and realized that, of course, they had given Bob the questions! And he had his five-inch-thick briefing book in front of him. In it was everything Cheney had ever said, voted on, or done, all of it broken down into fifty-three categories. That Cheney would be aggressive and conservative seemed a given, so in each practice Bob played him with "varying degrees of negativity," as Stan Greenberg put it. Together we practiced every conceivable format and answered every question our team could think up.
On Tuesday, October 3, we had our daily practice debate early in the evening, then headed downstairs to the rathskeller of the old Kentucky mansion, where we watched the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I totally misread the debate. Because I was focused on the substance of the arguments — not whether or not Al sighed or whether he came off as condescending — I thought he did really well. He clearly was better prepared, had a better grasp of the facts, and in contrast, Bush looked inadequate to me. And that more or less was what I told reporters as the campaign kept me up until 2:00 A.M. doing postdebate analysis for a few networks and many local television stations across the country.
What I failed to appreciate was that the commentators had so lowered the bar for Bush that as long as he didn't make a major mistake, they would regard his performance as an accomplishment. Nor did I understand why Gore's mannerisms would become such an issue. And none of us were prepared for how aggressively the Bush people would attack Gore after the debate for even the slightest stray comments. "People have taken some misstatements and turned them into something mythic," a senior Gore adviser remarked afterward.