Presidential candidates use the primary-season debates to sharpen their skills for the general election. Voters use those same debates to get a sense of who these people are and what they intend to do if elected.
Now that the full fields of Republicans and Democrats both have debated among themselves three times, some things are becoming clear.
On the Republican side, skill in debate correlates very badly with likelihood of nomination. The most effective debaters are three men with only the remotest chances of winning: Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch. Steve Forbes and George W. Bush look ill at ease. And while the camera loves John McCain's visage, he is voluble on only three topics--national security, campaign finance reform and himself.
As for the Democrats, Al Gore has shown himself more aggressive than Bill Bradley and more determined to press home his points. But he risks looking like a $400-an-hour corporate lawyer cross-examining Huck Finn; he doesn't know when to let up.
More significant than the comparative ratings within each field is the stunning contrast between the agendas of the two parties displayed in these debates. As a rule, the White House is won by the candidate most voters judge likely to act on the matters that most concern them.
Bill Clinton did not defeat President Bush in 1992 because people thought him a more admirable human being. The little-known governor of Arkansas won by convincing people he would focus on the challenges of the domestic economy, while his opponent seemed preoccupied with international diplomacy.
Thus far, to put it bluntly, the Democrats are talking about the things most voters care about; Republicans are not.
In October, The Post polled large numbers of people and sent me and other reporters out to talk to voters in their homes, in an intensive effort to discern what concerns were uppermost as the campaign began.
The worries that dominated the list centered heavily on health care and schools--patients' rights, prescription drugs, health insurance, education quality, the cost of college, school safety. Taxes were well down the list. No foreign policy issue made the top 10, which included crime, drug abuse and environmental pollution.
Through a combination of luck and design, Bradley and Gore have used their debates mainly to lay out their views on the voters' top issues. While they have argued vehemently about the relatively minor differences in their approaches to health care and schools, the main message has been: We care about the same things you do.
In two of their three debates, the questions have come from voters, and--no surprise--health care and education have been the most frequent topics. In their third debate, on last Sunday's "Meet the Press," moderator Tim Russert devoted almost two-thirds of the time to education, Medicare and Social Security, before swinging off to campaign finance reform, the Clinton record and U.S. military interventions.
By contrast, when I reviewed the transcripts of the three Republican debates, they confirmed my sense as a spectator that the candidates had been largely off-message. The topics that have taken most time are tax cuts and foreign policy--both far down the list of voter concerns. Bauer and Keyes have pressed divisive social issues, such as abortion and school prayer, and the field has spent more time on Internet taxation and regulation, ethanol subsidies and farm problems than on drug costs or Social Security.
Some of the difference is circumstantial. Republicans debated in the farm state of Iowa; Democrats did not. Republicans have been questioned by TV anchors, not voters. But even when they have had a chance to ask each other questions, the topics have been off-center: taxes, again and again; oil prices; China policy; missile defense; and, of course, abortion.
Of all the Republicans, Bush seems most aware of what is on the voters' minds, and he talks about schools and Social Security, along with defense and taxes, when he describes his own agenda. But Bush has little to say on health care, and his chief rival, McCain, is cursory--to put it politely--on both education and health care, subjects which have never been part of his Senate agenda. Forbes has advanced proposals in both areas, but has yet to demonstrate the capacity to sell them.
Given the meager record of the Republican Congress on the main domestic issues, the Republican presidential candidates can ill afford to shortchange these topics. They are making it awfully easy for Bradley and Gore to capture the voters' attention--the first step toward winning their support.