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Debate doesn't sway close race

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000

It was a little like the Super Bowl: much-anticipated, over-hyped, and, in the end, not all that satisfying.

The first debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush on Tuesday is not likely to change the dynamics of what appears to be the tightest presidential race in 40 years.

Instead of dispelling conventional wisdom, the encounter reinforced it.

Instead of breaking new ground, it plowed through months-old battles.

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Instead of swaying undecided voters, it may have left them more uncertain about how to choose between two candidates they aren't crazy about.

The result is that a close race may be even closer this morning.

If you were looking for quips and pithy lines, you were disappointed in this debate. If you like mind-numbing numbers, though, you were in heaven. Bush and Gore both tossed around so many statistics that they may have confused more voters than they enlightened.

What is clear is that this race has boiled down to two areas: the economy and seniors issues.

Gore scored points by repeatedly criticizing Bush's $1.3-trillion tax cut proposal, contending that the Texas governor's tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans would be larger than his spending on education, defense and other key issues.

Bush's defense that all taxpayers would receive a tax cut was not particularly effective.

The pair also waged a spirited battle over a prescription drug benefit for seniors. At times, Gore sounded like he knew Bush's proposal better than Bush.

The vice president pointed out that a Milwaukee couple making $25,000 a year would not receive any help paying for drugs under the Texas governor's plan. That appears to be only partially right.

Under Bush's proposal, that couple would make too much money to qualify for help under the Republican's plan to send federal money to the states for four years to cover drug costs for the poor. But the Texas governor's proposal says no senior would have to pay $6,000 in out-of-pocket drug costs.

Bush didn't like Gore's attack one bit.

"That's just totally false," he said, contending every senior could receive an immediate benefit. "That's just totally false for him to stand up here and say that."

"In the first year? In the first year?" Gore demanded.

"If we can get it done in the first year, you bet," Bush responded.

Good luck following the intricacies of this policy fight on TV without a mountain of briefing papers on the coffee table.

The exchange did produce one of the best lines of the night.

"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet but he invented the calculator," Bush said. "It's fuzzy math."

For supporters of either candidate, the debate reinforced some perceptions that long ago blossomed into over-the-top caricatures.

Gore spit out all sorts of statistics and did not come across as particularly warm. He blew an easy question about his response to crises, naming Kosovo but no other specifics. Bush recounted comforting a flood victim and how sometimes you "put arms around the man and cry with them." That is exactly the human touch that attracts so many to him.

Both were careful to avoid the sorts of mistakes they often make. Bush did not noticeably mangle any words, although he seemed a bit unsure on a question about the military until he recalled a couple of sound bites. About the worst it got was when he described Mexico's president-elect, Vincente Fox: "He's a man I know from Mexico."

For his part, Gore worked hard to temper his attack-dog reputation. When Bush finally came at him at the end by recalling the vice president's infamous "no controlling legal authority" line on fundraising abuses, Gore turned the other cheek and did not counter-attack.

With some justification, both Gore and Bush will spend the rest of the week crowing that they accomplished their goals Tuesday night.

The Texas governor, the more inexperienced debater, held his own and demonstrated he belongs on the national stage. He presented his conservative agenda in his non-threatening style and promised to work in a bipartisan way that contrasts with the gridlock in Washington now.

The vice president demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of detailed public policy without the condescending attitude that occasionly shows up. He succeeded in emphasizing differences that both he and most voters have with Bush on issues such as tax cuts, abortion rights and tuition vouchers.

You want a debate winner?

Gore by a hair.

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