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Tomorrow night Gore and Bush finally face off face-to-face. Expectations have been driven so low for George W. that all he has to do is retain his dignity to be scored the winner. He’ll ignore the questions, stick to his script, crack a few jokes and make earnest eye contact with the camera.

He knows that the people just tuning in to the presidential campaign are the people who are most likely to be won over with images of command and mastery, an illusion he just needs to keep up for a few more weeks.

Of course, George W. Bush is the least qualified candidate to lead the nation since the U.S. became a superpower. But all he really needs to do tomorrow night is successfully play president on TV. If he makes it across the finish line without falling down his handlers will be overjoyed.

Gore’s challenge is much greater. The national press corps has already identified Gore as the ranking world champion, so nothing less than a gold medal and a new world record will suffice.

Gore’s greatest liability going into the debates is that he has substance, which is difficult to convey in a largely frivilous and insubstantial medium. After so many years of the right-wing drumbeat that government can do nothing right, and the radically reduced ambitions of President Clinton’s turbulent second term, Gore’s bold invocation of government action is fraught with peril. Gore is proposing that the government actually take action in such areas as prescription drug coverage or oil prices, and that we meet the challenge of public education with a renewed public commitment on a scale large enough to address the problem.

Unfortunately, the debate format is such that all you need to do to be perceived as being qualified to be president is have enough material to talk for maybe 35 minutes.

The candidate proposing simple answers has a tremendous advantage on television. Bush’s message will be closer to what people want to hear. It is the reassurance to the American people that there really isn’t much they need to concern themselves with, so they can safely turn the channel and see what else is on.