USA Today leads with tonight's Gore-Bush debate. The Washington Post mixes debate coverage with its latest poll, which shows Gore up 48-46 percent when Buchanan and Nader are included and up 51-46 percent when they are not. The New York Times goes with its own poll, although its headline and story emphasize not voters' basic preferences but their assessments of the candidates' fitness to lead. The Los Angeles Times puts the debates at the bottom of the page (in the form of a vox poppy piece on swing voters) and leads with the fifth straight day--the worst yet--of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, a story that all the other majors front with the exception of USAT, which fronts a picture of a wounded boy being carried off by other Palestinians but puts the story on Page 24. Similarly, all the majors but USAT front a situation report from Yugoslavia, where Vojislav Kostunica has visited thousands of mine workers participating in the widespread strike he's called to protest Slobodan Milosevic's failure to concede electoral defeat, and where Milosevic in turn appeared on state television saying that his political opposition is using foreign money to try to "stop life in Serbia."
The USAT lead says that the debates have taken on "added urgency" because the polls are so close. They will, says the paper, focus on economics but will also probably touch on energy prices, the violence in the Middle East, and federal approval of RU-486. And not a moment too soon--the paper takes note of a poll from the University of Pennsylvania claiming that nearly half of registered voters were unable to identify Bush and Gore positions. The WP lead says Gore's debate goal will be to reassure voters that he is warm, engaging, and trustworthy, and that Bush's is to reassure them that he has a firm command of the issues.
The WP says its poll detects the "persistent gender gap" found in previous press surveys: men favoring Bush (53-40 percent), women favoring Gore (56-38 percent). The NYT lead goes high with its polls finding that most of its 1,131 respondents (actually, the paper says "most Americans") believe both Bush and Gore to be strong leaders but consider Gore "far more prepared for the White House." The paper's sum-up is that the survey "had much encouraging news" for Gore and "very little" for Bush. And the story waits until after this--until the ninth paragraph--to reveal that the actual difference in support its survey detected is "statistically insignificant." But then the Times presses on anyway, pointing out that no matter how the results are jiggled, Gore usually still comes out a few points ahead.
The LAT says that the Israeli-Palestinian fighting--which now has claimed at least 50 lives, almost all Arabs--has spread so far beyond its origins on the West Bank that both Israelis and Arabs living in Israel are afraid of a general war breaking out inside their country. The paper reports that Madeleine Albright has arranged to have Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat meet with her tomorrow in Paris to discuss the crisis. The NYT off-lead on the situation headlines the Albright meeting although it simultaneously deflates optimism by quoting Barak as saying that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are now "on the shelf."
The LAT is guilty of some seriously incomplete writing when it reports that Israeli "soldiers also fired antitank missiles into two Palestinian apartment buildings overlooking the Netzarim junction" with no further elaboration. The editors should have asked, "In response to something? Just for the hell of it?" And as the papers have tended to, the NYT refers to the original site of the West Bank trouble as "the great cubic stone structure that Muslims call Haram al Sharif and Jews know as the Temple Mount." It seems that linguistic parity is in order here. Either give the Hebrew name for the place, too, or translate both it and the Arabic. (USAT got this right yesterday, telling readers that Muslims call the spot the Noble Sanctuary.)
The LAT off-leads an exclusive investigation of the loosened Texas concealed handgun law that George W. Bush signed in 1995, which finds that since then, 400 convicted criminals--including rapists and armed robbers--have gotten permits there. The paper also runs a sidebar on a biker gang member who because he didn't actually have a criminal conviction was able to get a concealed weapons permit and who a year later killed two men in a shootout over drugs. From prison the biker tells the paper that under the Texas program, the gun "just fell into my hands." This is a powerful story told well, but "Today's Papers" is a bit concerned about the timing. Why couldn't this story have come out last week? Or wait until next week? Publishing on the day of the debate seems calculated to give the Bush campaign little time to prepare for the questions the story puts into play for Jim Lehrer.
If you think the Web is raising the standard of political discussion, you might want to skip the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, which features the results of an opinion poll conducted by the paper's Web venture OpinionJournal.com in which clickers were asked what sort of "October Surprise" President Clinton would come up with to try to influence the election. The paper passes along "one of the funniest" entries: "Hillary, Tipper, and Hadassah will all announce that they are pregnant. And, in a moment of confusion, Al Gore will announce on 'Larry King Live' that he, too, is pregnant. At the same time, Geraldo Rivera will attack Gov. Bush for not being pregnant."
"If Gore does really well tonight, we'll have to send out for fresh verbs." The WP lead includes this passage, obviously influenced by TV baseball wrap-ups: "Gore ... demolished former senator Bill Bradley in primary debates last winter, battered Jack Kemp in the 1996 vice presidential debate and humiliated Ross Perot in a 1993 televised debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement."