It's the quiet before the hoo-ha. The two Democratic candidates take the stage, the audience settles perceptibly, 15 minutes left until the debate, and Vice President Gore bounds off his stool and comes on like the Dwight Yoakam of Massachusetts Avenue.

"Why don't y'allll start asking questions while we're waiting," Gore asks the audience Wednesday night in the Dartmouth College theater. "Y'all tell us when we have to stop. . . ."

Gore is trying on another of his personality suits for debate night, and this one seems to fit okay if you accept that the vice president now is very casual, very spontaneous and slightly overcaffeinated. The man's wearing shiny black cowboy boots.

How casual is that?

Arrayed against him is another personality archetype: the studiously languid Bill Bradley, with his slyly rambling style. If Gore seems always to be in a new suit, Bradley sometimes seems to sleep in his.

In the world of presidential campaigns, much blather is lathered on the notion of debates as defining moments. That Gore and Bradley will not prove themselves Cicero resurrected is a cinch. To expect a Lincoln-Douglas moment from these two experienced, intelligent and politically like-minded men is to court disappointment.

Rather, the fascination comes from watching two presidential candidates begin their national rollout, the road-testing of public personas and spin machines before a few hundred reporters, columnists, photographers, television anchors and instant pundits.

It has all the staginess of an old chestnut performed by a repertory theater. And the backdrop is always the same: a from-Central-Casting New England college town ringed by fields frosted white and maple trees that vibrate with hallucinatory color.

The Warm-up

The festivities start with a cattle call the morning before the debate. We gather, an intimate band of 100 or so reporters and photographers, along with three dozen sign-waving students. A few of our young scholars are dressed in long johns and superhero costumes for reasons that remain obscure to non-Ivy League alumni.

We are here to watch Bradley take a "casual stroll" down Hanover's Main Street.

Casual is defined as a tall man with a bemused look snaking along a sidewalk behind a yellow-rope line held by two aides, as mothers thrust snotty babies into his face for a smooch, men stick hands into his gut, and college kids keep up a clangor. Beefy cameramen and guys with sound booms stampede down the street, carrying chairs to stand on like so many Mad Hatters who've found themselves late to the party.

Bonnie Ladeau, a flinty New England type, stares Bradley in the eye. "You're one of the honest ones," she informs him.

Bradley flashes the smile that so often suggests he is accustomed to viewing himself from a distance. "Thank you," he says.

With that, Bradley tilts his head and disappears into a waiting van.

The Main Event

Casual is the affect du jour. Bradley walks on stage with his hands stuffed in his pockets and parks his wide hips on a stool. Gore walks on, hands also stuffed in pockets. Just two guys running for president.

Bradley stays in type, the cool cat. He ruminates more than he declaims, his long, thin fingers slicing the air. His answers lend themselves to tangents about America and the nature of leadership. Asked to name some world leaders whose qualities he admires, he picks an unexpected trio: Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The quality he admires most? "The ability to see around corners."

Bradley left the Senate in 1996, a decision that Gore now portrays as an abandonment of a Democratic Party in free fall. But Bradley offers a counter-narrative: the sabbatical that's prelude to the chase.

"I don't think I'd be running for president of the United States had I not taken those two years," he says, "had I not been able to get outside and work in the private sector, encounter people where they live their lives on an everyday basis and develop a sense of where I think we ought to take the country."

Gore is a bit more psyched. He's watched his poll numbers take the stomach-in-mouth drop in New Hampshire and Iowa, and he's being decisive. Cut his staff. Took the campaign on location to Nashville. Donned a blue shirt, a hipper jacket, a rich reddish tie. He's buff now, his jawline has reappeared. His comb-over almost covers the bald spot, too.

This isn't the Vice President of the United States of America anymore, the sluggish fellow with the stentorian aspect favored by pigeon-bedecked statues in Washington, D.C. This is the virile husband. Or your Dad, except he's even cooler.

And he really wants to connect.

Every questioner in the audience gets the personal pat-down. Are you vice president [of a local union]? So am I! You say your high school students are disillusioned? So was I once!

He tells a joke or two, and gets some laughs. His smiles are a little disconcerting, as they aren't always rooted in an obvious humor moment. But he's trying. And he gets a little aggressive. Gives a jab here and there to Bradley, whose response rarely extends beyond an arch of his wing-tip eyebrows.

Gore is also anxious to put a little room between the new and improved him and his boss. So when he's asked a question about the current administration . . .

"I understand the disappointment and anger that you feel toward President Clinton, and I felt it myself," he says. "I also feel that the American people want to move on and turn the page and focus on the future."

Here's the problem, though. The person who asked the question never mentioned the president's name.

At the end, as the anchor types begin to wrap it up, Gore pops off that stool again and displays a bit more of the spontaneity that is about to become his middle name.

"Could I say one more word?" he says. "I would like to stay, if anybody has other questions, I will stay after the TV cameras are turned off and as long as you want."

Did the national television audience hear that? Rest assured, it was spontaneous.

The Spin

The clash of high-fiber titans is over but a minute or two. We're in a cavernous and dimly lit room that holds a few hundred rabid reporters who've watched the debate on a large television screen and are now clattering away on their laptops.

Then the doors open and in walks Team Gore. On time and On Message.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson moves to a cluster of television cameras as though pulled by a homing beacon. "Al Gore is a man of humor," he says. "This is the man I know."

And right over there, surrounded by a rumpled scrum of reporters, is Education Secretary Dick Riley. "Gore is a man of humor . . ." Riley says.

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman is another 10 feet away, yakking happily. You hazard a guess that she's struck with her candidate's funny bone, too.

Team Gore is humming, though to what end is unclear. Young Gore 2000 aides fan out across the room, slipping white sheets dubbed "reality check" onto reporters' desks. The checks take issue with something Bradley was saying on the screen. Three more zaps follow.

Most wind up in garbage cans.

Over in another corner, Eric Hauser, Bradley's press secretary, stares lizard-eyed into the cameras. He's trying to be as laconic as the boss. Does he see a new Gore?

"I don't know about that. Authenticity rings true or it doesn't."

The Wind-Down

Downstairs, an hour after the debate ended, and Gore is still onstage, still surrounded by college students, still showing he really can connect. As the students ask their questions, he stares into their eyes. As he answers, he stares into their eyes. He is wonkish, he is funny, he just is.

He drops the names of a half-dozen foreign presidents and spiritual leaders who, as it happens and just by the by, are close personal friends. "Thabo Mbeki, my good friend . . ." "I've met with the Dalai Lama almost every time he comes to Washington . . ." and the president of the Ukraine, "I've worked closely with him."

The students lap it up, even if by the end there are fewer than two dozen left in the hall. Tipper makes eye contact with the Secret Service so that maybe, together, they can ease her Energizer bunny of a husband toward the door.

It's near midnight and frigid outside, but there's a full, election-year moon shining. And together with the television-anchor klieg lights, it makes day of night in Hanover.

CAPTION: Democratic hopeful Bill Bradley watches as the studiously casual Vice President Gore makes a point during their debate Wednesday at Dartmouth College.

CAPTION: Al Gore and Bill Bradley speak with members of the audience after Wednesday's debate. Gore's newly crafted fighting spirit, below left, contrasted with Bradley's more reserved air.