Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Until Tuesday night, Vice President Al Gore was still a White House understudy. Until Tuesday night, Governor George W. Bush was still a relative newcomer to the political arts. But in the crucible of the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, the two men -- now battle-tested, now survivors of the most unforgiving forum in American politics -- almost visibly grew, finally filling not only the television screen but perhaps also many Americans' expectations of the strength and depth needed to be the leader of a complicated country.

There were few missteps, few clear-cut moments of advantage. Instead the two nominees satisfied their narrow goals for the first televised debate, resolving little -- but bringing the image of both of them into clearer resolution.

The public saw two men whose eyes, hand gestures, and manner suggested that they were ready, willing, and maybe even able to take command, not only in the pastoral duties of the president but also in the persuasive, even evangelical role.

That was the big, and perhaps the only, news Tuesday night.

The two candidates made their customary points in their customary fashion, delivering well-rehearsed and oft-repeated assertions, offering few surprises.

And so, over the course of 90 minutes Tuesday night, the public saw a Democratic presidential candidate who was determined but slightly pedantic. And it saw a Republican presidential candidate who was well-briefed, particularly on his domestic priorities, but slightly tentative and who seemed to tire as the event wore on.

None of that is earth-shattering. But the confrontation -- the very act of putting the candidates on the same stage at a moment with few distractions -- seemed to enlarge the two of them.

The evening began with the two men locked in a close race. It probably ended with little change.

Little change, despite desperate efforts by both of them to probe for advantage.

Throughout the evening, Bush attempted to portray his rival as a politician who distorts and overreaches, a capital insider remote from the day-to-day challenges and pleasures of life beyond the Washington Beltway, and the representative of an administration that has had a chance to change the way Washington works and failed.

At the same time, Gore attempted to portray his opponent as an inexperienced figure who was not even the master of his own proposals, a plutocrat whose major interest was to enrich the wealthy and an abortion opponent who is unwilling to permit women to make their own decisions in one of the most intimate but contentious areas of public debate.

The vice president was the master of detail. In the early years of nationhood, it was often said that if God were in the details, James Madison was usually there to greet him on arrival. Tuesday night, Gore portrayed himself as a member of the receiving line.

The Texas governor was relaxed and informal. In the 1980s, American commentators came to see Ronald Reagan's compelling bearing as a symbol of the importance of personality in politics. Tuesday night, Bush portrayed himself as intuitive, the master perhaps not of the telling detail but surely of his own mind.

In several exchanges -- on taxes, on health care, on the environment -- Gore was a fountain of statistics (and, on occasion, a very audible geyser of exasperated sighs). On the surface he may have wrested a small advantage over Bush. But the relentlessness with which he pursued his rival may backfire, especially if viewers agree with the governor's repeated assertions that Gore traffics in phoney numbers or, as he put it, ``Washington fuzzy math.''

And though the debate was broadcast across the nation, the debate was actually an exercise in narrowcasting.

For Bush, the audience was those who still believe he is untested. For Gore, the audience was those who still believe he is too rigid, too automatic.

But for both of them, the principal audiences were women -- both candidates tailored their remarks to a group that Gore must capture and that Bush must wrest from the Democrats -- and the small slice of undecided voters in the diminishing number of states that still are up for grabs.

For that reason, Thursday night's debate in Danville, Ky., by the two vice-presidential nominees, former defense secretary Dick Cheney of Wyoming and US Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, now takes on even greater importance. The two ticket leaders have spoken. But the public mind, and the election, is likely as far from resolution as it was before they set foot in Boston.