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Hurling numbers not punch lines

[AP photo]
Vice President Al Gore, left, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush shake hands Tuesday at the opening of their first of three debates. The 90-minute battle was at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


BOSTON -- In their first debate Tuesday night, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush offered voters a clear choice between two distinct political philosophies.

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Debate doesn't sway close race

On a variety of issues including abortion, Medicare, oil exploration, taxes, education and national defense, both Gore and Bush disagreed repeatedly. The result was a lively, energetic debate that appeared to accomplish the main purpose of such face-offs: explaining their policy positions to the more than 75-million people who watched.

According to Gore, the difference between the two of them is that he would help the middle class while Bush would assist the wealthy. According to Bush, he supports helping all taxpayers while Gore would create a bigger, bloated federal government.

"Obviously," observed Bush, "we have huge differences of opinion."

For the most part, the debate focused on policy, not personality. At the very end, however, in response to a question from moderator Jim Lehrer, Bush criticized Gore for his alleged campaign finance abuses, such as his attendance at 1996 fundraiser at a Buddhist Temple.

"I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not each other . . . ," replied Gore. "I'm not going to respond in kind."

It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the debate for the outcome of the Nov. 7 election. With nationwide polls showing them to be virtually even, both Gore and Bush knew that even the slightest mistake could cost him the election.

Not only did they avoid any big flubs, both candidates turned in highly polished performances. But perhaps because expectations were lower for Bush, it was likely that he would be judged to have come away with the advantage.

Bush, whose strength to date has been his sunny personality, showed he had a good grasp of the policy differences. And Gore, an experienced debater known for his encyclopedic knowledge of policy, did his best to project a warmer image. But in the final analysis, both men generally appeared as they have been characterized in the past.

While Gore hammered away at Bush for favoring the wealthy, Bush frequently attacked the vice president for failing to accomplish during the past eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration any of the things he is promising now.

At least a dozen times, Gore asserted that Bush would spend more to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans than he would on all the new programs the Republican has proposed.

In response, Bush declared: "You've had your chance, Mr. Vice President. You've been there eight years and nothing has been done."

On the issue of Medicare, Bush noted that President Clinton and Gore promised to create a prescription drug benefit for seniors during their first campaign together in 1992 and again when they ran for re-election in 1996. But no such benefit has yet been enacted.

"It seems like they can't get it done," Bush said. "There's been some missed opportunities."

Gore noted that his plan for prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients would benefit all seniors from the start. By comparison, he said, Bush's plan would help only low-income seniors for the first three or four years. Then, he said, Bush would require seniors to get coverage from HMOs or insurance companies -- not directly from the government.

But Bush said Gore was exaggerating how long it would take for most seniors to be covered under his plan, and he promised -- perhaps for the first time -- to provide coverage for all seniors as quickly as possible. On this, Bush went beyond his own policy papers.

On the issue of taxes, Bush insisted that Gore was exaggerating the impact of his proposed tax cuts. He said he wanted to spend only $1.3-trillion of the estimated $25-trillion revenue over the next 10 years on tax cuts.

Bush pleaded guilty when Gore alleged that the Republican's tax cut would give money to the wealthy as well as to the poor and middle class.

The Texas governor said that unlike Gore, he does not believe that some Americans deserve tax cuts and others do not. He said Gore excludes 50-million Americans from tax cuts and "he decides who the right people are."

"Everybody who pays taxes ought to get tax relief," Bush said.

Furthermore, Bush argued, the wealthy would be paying a higher percentage of country's taxes under his plan.

Bush repeatedly attacked Gore for using "fuzzy math" when assessing the Republican's proposals.

"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet," Bush quipped, "he also invented the calculator."

Gore said the United States has an obligation to "use our prosperity wisely," and that means giving a tax break only to those who need it most.

When the subject came around to Social Security, Bush staunchly defended his plan to allow Americans to invest some of the money themselves. Gore would not allow this, but instead would provide financial incentives for low- and middle-income people to save money.

"Here is the difference," Gore said. "I give a new incentive for younger workers to save their own money and invest their own money but not at the expense of Social Security. . . . My plan is Social Security plus."

Bush replied: "It's not Social Security plus, it's Social Security plus a huge debt."

Abortion also divided the two debaters. Gore favors a woman's right to abortion and Bush would like to restrict it.

Both men said they would not use abortion as a "litmus test" when choosing nominees for the Supreme Court, but they made it clear they would pick two different kinds of justices. Bush said he favored strict constructionists, which Gore said was a "code word" for anti-abortion.

Gore acknowledged that his nominees for the Supreme Court would likely preserve abortion rights under Roe vs. Wade.

Likewise, Gore defended the current strength of the American military, while Bush said the Clinton administration was allowing the morale of the military to erode.

"I agree our military is the strongest in the world today," Bush said, "but will it be that way in the future?"

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