Lion vs. Tiger

That was some debate, the best so far of the political year. Each man was up to the battle. Each revealed what he thinks, how he operates, where he stands.

Norm Coleman won. But Fritz Mondale showed there’s life in the old boy yet.

I wouldn’t have bet that Mr. Coleman would emerge the victor. The narrative of a grand old man taking up the standard of a fallen local hero and waging forth valiantly in spite of age seemed to me the kind of thing most politicians wouldn’t be able to knock down or change.

But Mr. Coleman read the psychological landscape astutely. He knew he had to be both respectful and firm. He understood that Mr. Mondale’s prime aim in the debate was to demonstrate that he still has it—he may be from another time but he’s feisty and all there and ready to stand firm for Minnesota in Washington. Mr. Coleman seems to have known that Mr. Mondale would attempt to show strength by adopting a piercing and pugilistic style. Mr. Mondale did. Mr. Coleman came back with earnestness and a calm desire to find “common ground.” It was the kind of calm and earnest demeanor you use when you’re talking to the cranky old guy in the diner who likes to patronize young people.

You couldn’t see Mr. Mondale’s eyes. The studio lights put a glare on his big Junior Soprano glasses, and it robbed him of any warmth or facial expression.

Mr. Coleman was collected, and prepared to be just as aggressive as he needed to be. Mr. Mondale hit first, suggesting Mr. Coleman was allied with special interests. Mr. Coleman answered by painting Mr. Mondale as Chairman of the Boards, and seemed to suggest boardrooms were an odd place to find a champion of the people. Mr. Mondale shot back with sarcasm: how “charming” that Mr. Coleman was concerned about his business experience.

Mr. Mondale adopted the language of us vs. them. He used the language not of the Democratic Party of his era but of the Democratic Party of today. He name-called. Mr. Coleman is “right wing,” he runs with “the right-to-life crowd,” he is “an arbitrary right-to-lifer.”

Mr. Coleman didn’t insult Mr. Mondale in turn, but he came back strong, challenging Mr. Mondale’s characterization of his stand. He had lost two children early in their lives, and there is “nothing arbitrary” about his support for life. But he called too for “common ground,” especially in the area of parental consent for minors’ abortions.

Mr. Coleman seemed moderate and sober. Mr. Mondale seemed sarcastic. He literally began to point his finger at Mr. Coleman as he made his points. Mr. Coleman didn’t take the bait, and sat with his hands clasped on the table. Mr. Coleman used Mr. Mondale’s aggression against him, suggesting it was a problem: “We have to change the tone.”

Mr. Mondale’s public presentation of himself in the debate may undermine his natural standing as a Grand Old Man—which is his biggest plus as a candidate.

Mr. Coleman seemed to present himself not as radical or right wing or extreme but as a serious man who has and will work across party lines.

Mr. Mondale meant to explain his own record at the end, and an impressive record it is. But his rhetorical repetition—“I know the Senate. . . . I served in the Senate. . . . I was president of the Senate”—made him seem like the father in the old sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”—“I fought in WWII, the big one!’ ” He was always doing that to prove he was a big guy who’d lived through big history. The kids were always rolling their eyes. They knew a blowhard when they saw one.

The entire debate will come down to a handful of sound bites on the news in Minnesota tonight. I think the impression voters will come away with is this: Shaky and irritable old lion tries to cuff rising young tiger; young tiger respectfully stands his ground without resorting to viciousness.

I think Mr. Coleman won the election this morning. I think he solidified his rising numbers, and picked up some undecided voters. And I think that considering what has happened in Minnesota the past few weeks that is one amazing story.