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Clinton, Dole Launch Zingers At Themselves

Sat., Oct. 5, 1996

The other guy is great. A Goliath in his field. A quick, smart, masterful debater. He’ll be hard to beat.

So says Bob Dole of President Clinton.

So says President Clinton of Bob Dole.

As the two presidential candidates repaired to their private retreats to prepare for their first debate Sunday night, they joined in the age-old political game of low-balling. The idea: tout your opponent’s brilliance, lower expectations of yourself, then clobber him.

Dole, who spent much of the last week preparing for the face-off, has said the odds against him are so great he can win simply by showing up.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he told reporters in Florida on Friday. “I understand the president’s skills. I’ll be there. I’ll try to state our case.”

He appeared nervous during a short break from his rehearsal Friday, saying: “Ready or not, it’s going to happen. We’ve gone over the material for some time. It will be very, very interesting. It will be a big challenge for me.”

Clinton, trying to play down his reputation as a great orator, implied he is so ill-prepared he couldn’t even beat another former Senate majority leader in a rehearsal.

“Tell the truth, George,” Clinton quipped Friday to former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, who is playing the role of Dole in rehearsals. “You beat me like a drum, kicked me all over the place last night. Tell the truth.”

Presidential debates have become an American institution in the last two decades. Nearly 100 million people tuned into the third presidential debate four years ago. They were important in both 1960 and 1980 in influencing the outcome of the election.

For Clinton, they are his chance to look presidential, and show the world how he has grown in four years.

For Dole, trailing in the polls for months, they are his last best chance to energize Republicans and undecideds.

The president and about two-dozen senior advisers have been secluded since Thursday at a four-story Victorian hotel on the rolling grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, a 750-acre retreat founded in 1881 as a vacation school for Sunday school teachers.

Before an afternoon round of golf Friday, reporters asked Clinton whether he really needed debate training, given his proclivity for speaking off the cuff, shagging difficult questions and deflecting attacks. He turned modest.

“Debates are different, because it’s not just answering tough questions,” he said. Laughing, he added, “Senator Mitchell won last night. I am badly out of shape on this, but I’m trying to get better.”

Clinton and Mitchell are debating every night - starting at 6 p.m. PDT, the same time the actual debate is to begin Sunday in Hartford, Conn.

Although Dole aides have been promising something “unexpected” at the debates, they were silent Friday about what that might be.

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