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It was a moment that should have had Karl Rove and George W. Bush's other handlers cringing from the sidelines. Following a successful thrust by Vice President Al Gore in which he exposed a loophole in the governor's prescription drug plan, W. parried with one of the more mature lines from Tuesday night's debate: "Look, this is a man, he's got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator." If Bush went into the contest having to prove himself knowledgeable about the affairs of state, he came out proving only that he knew how to awkwardly deliver scripted one-liners. If he went in needing to show that he could handle the highest elected office in the land, he came out proving only that he could handle guest-hosting duties on The Tonight Show. Which should have campaign manager Rove and his staff ready to look for new jobs five weeks from now. The biggest slight on Bush to date is that he's not quite that bright -- that he can't explain the details of his own policy proposals, that he mangles the English language in his campaign speeches, that he has the intellectual heft of a stack of comic books. He's fun, for sure, the guy to watch the game or crack a joke with, but not the guy you want doing your taxes -- or the federal budget. The first debate was Bush's opportunity to dispel these notions. And despite a few slips of the tongue -- getting the name of an education program wrong, frequently violating laws of subject-verb agreement and at one point seemingly insisting that Hispanic kids are unable to learn -- he avoided any major malapropisms. But more importantly, he failed to establish that he had much of a grasp over policy matters, even his own plans. While Gore would attack Bush's proposals with facts and figures, the Republican wouldn't -- or more likely, couldn't -- argue on the merits of his own platform. Instead, he would slam Gore's credibility or accuse him of using "fuzzy math," a phrase that became a rallying cry at Bush's campaign stop yesterday in West Chester, Pa. When your supporters begin chanting about how your opponent likes to back up his arguments with -- gasp! -- actual data, your campaign has taken a turn for the worse. Bush promised before the first debate that he wouldn't use any "gimmicks" -- meaning, one would assume, no undue verbal jabs, no name calling and no avoiding issue-based discourse. But borrowing from the self-immolating Rick Lazio School of Debating, he did everything but tie his opponent's shoe laces together. Of course, Gore was far from perfect. His goals were to prove that he wasn't just a policy wonk, recapture the magic of the convention kiss and show himself as a real human being. On those notes, he has a way to go. He didn't stoop to Dubya's level, at the very least, by telling the national audience to read his lips -- the verbal potshot I was waiting for all night. But his mathematical wizardry may have put off some of the less numerically inclined viewers and his incessant invocation of "working class men and women" was grating. And his conclusion -- a feeble rehash of the section of his convention speech where he tried to establish his humanity -- was unconvincing. As a policy expert, Gore is still as wonkish as they come, but as a candidate, he is still mired in mediocrity. So what we're left with after the first debate are the same two candidates we had a week, a month and a year ago. But Rove and the rest of the Bush machine should take notice of the post-debate poll data giving Gore a slight bounce. The American people have shown an intelligent preference for the trusty human calculator over the mean-spirited class clown, and the clock is ticking on W.'s comedy routine.

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