The more confident voice of Vice President Al Gore, recognizable to those who listened to his August acceptance speech to Democratic delegates, emerged during last night's presidential debate in St. Louis.
Gone was the sigher and slasher from the first debate against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a performance evidently perceived as too snippy to be presidential. Gone too was the muted assenter of the second debate, in which Gore's repeated, restrained agreement with Bush made it seem as though they were young siblings vying for parental approval.
After a few episodes, viewers come to feel they know television characters - such as the liberal and ratings-friendly President Josiah Bartlet from NBC's "The West Wing." Similarly, the public persona for each real-life candidate - men who had been prominent without being well-known - has been shaped to a great degree by the narratives that have emerged from their earlier encounters this month.
So the question for Gore, who has found himself on the defensive, was: Would his character development over this month's television miniseries - the presidential debates - appear to be a natural evolution or an calculated shift?
Can Gore's steadier performance last night reverse the momentum built up by Bush since the first debate? Or will Bush's ratings continue to rise right up to that great political sweeps period on the first Tuesday in November?
At the third and final debate, Bush and Gore faced questions generated by an audience of ostensibly undecided voters, selected by the Gallup Organization.
Questions, as yielded by the Gallup process and chosen by moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, seemed to favor Gore, as the audience echoed Gore's themes, such as health care reform and education. One questioner was more pointed, asking Bush whether he had intended to exult in an early debate when talking about executing convicted murderers in Texas.
Bush, advertised as the more personable of the two, seemed far less comfortable in the give-and-take setting, which often called for a command of wide-ranging policy implications. Gore walked toward audience members as they posed questions, radiating empathy, as President Clinton had so successfully in his debates. Bush periodically tried the same approach but also sputtered at Gore's remarks.
He looked to Lehrer to intervene when Gore challenged him on affirmative action. At another point, piqued by Gore's criticism, Bush said, "There's an old high school debating trick, which is to answer something and then attack your opponent at the end."
Gore retorted, "He may want to call it a debating trick, but let me tell you this - this election is not about debating tricks; it is about your future."
Bush adopted the stance that any criticism or attack of his policies represented an effort to divide Americans - a neat trick, had it proved successful in defanging Gore.
"There's a lot of bickering in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "It's like a political issue instead of a people issue. Forget all the arguing and finger-pointing. We need to come together."
But Bush never directly responded to several of Gore's gibes, including the contention that Bush had opposed the primary bipartisan plan to address insurance reform.
Instead, the Republican governor repeatedly painted Gore as a "big spender," a fan of "big government" who would add to the federal bureaucracy. Stung by Gore's interruption that Bush's contention has been long discredited by published accounts, Bush looked at Lehrer with annoyance and asked, "My turn?"
"Forget the journalists," Bush said. "He proposed more than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis combined. He ought to be proud of it - it's part of his record."
Gore, a former reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, said, "You said forget the journalists, but they are the keeper of the score cards."
There goes the vote of the great media elite. Yet to be seen - the rest of the country.