When Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley meet tonight in their first joint television appearance, the format won't be as confrontational as Gore had hoped.
The two campaigns agreed to a "town meeting" format for the one hour session at Dartmouth College here, beginning at 8 p.m. EDT on CNN. Although the Democratic presidential candidates will share the stage they will be answering questions from an audience of local citizens -- not confronting each other directly.
But in negotiations in recent days, the Gore camp pushed for changes in the rules that would allow for more direct give-and-take between the two rivals.
"The Gore people wanted opening statements, more chances for confrontation, that sort of thing," a senior Bradley campaign aide said. "We were happy with what we had agreed to." No changes were made.
Gore's strategists said they did push for a format that would have allowed longer responses and more back and forth between the candidates. "The way you win a debate in on rebuttal," said one of Gore's lead advisors referring to the vice president's perceived victories in earlier debates. They readily acknowledged Gore has difficulty connecting with audiences in 90-second sound bites.
Both candidates have kept to light campaign schedules the past two days while preparing diligently with numerous advisers and consultants for their non debate. Gore's only public appearance this morning was going for a jog with the Souhegan High School cross country team before heading up to Hanover for tonight's debate.
Bradley shook hands along the shops Hanover's main drag and paid a visit to Lou's Restaurant and Bakery, a legendary breakfast spot in this quaint New England college town. The former senator and his wife, Ernestine, greeted diners for about 10 minutes and poked some fun at one another as they emerged from the restaurant, Bradley stopped to greet a baby. "Oh, don't scare the kid," his wife joked.
Bradley's every move was recorded by a huge throng of cameras and reporters. Although the primary here is still three months away, the media attention was already at a fever pitch.
While New Hampshire polls rate Bradley as even with or narrowly ahead of the vice president, Gore continues to lead in national polls.
The latest Marist poll, out today, found the vice president leading the former senator from New Jersey, 49 percent to 32 percent. An April poll from Marist had Gore leading Bradley, 59 percent to 25 percent.
Support for the two Democrats breaks down regionally, according to the poll. In the East, Bradley, a former basketball star with the New York Knicks, leads Gore, 52 percent to 35 percent. Conversely, Gore, a former senator from Tennessee, led Bradley in the South, 58 percent to 19 percent.
The Marist poll found Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, leading both Gore and Bradley. Against Gore, Bush led, 53 percent to 39 percent, while the Texas governor led Bradley, 52 percent to 37 percent.