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Round 2: Friendly start, foreign policy

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000


WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For almost 90 minutes, George W. Bush and Al Gore sat down Wednesday night and danced around each other.

The two candidates agreed with each other often during their second presidential debate. They made their criticisms gently. Their differences over the environment, foreign policy and the role of government often took several exchanges to clarify.

Only in the last couple of minutes did they stop mincing words.

After Bush said Gore's credibility and reputation for exaggeration should be an issue for voters to consider, the vice president promised to do better and vowed to focus on the big picture for America.

Bush indicated that answer wasn't good enough.

"It depends on what he says in the future," the Texas governor said.

The future came seconds later.

After Gore suggested anyone would have trouble explaining Bush's proposed tax cuts, Bush interrupted, "That's the kind of exaggeration I'm talking about."

"Well," Gore shot back, "I'm not the one having trouble explaining it."

The debate in Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel, the site of a 1988 debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis, was the second of three. The final debate will be Tuesday in St. Louis, using a town hall format where selected voters will ask Bush and Gore questions.

Just 26 days before the Nov. 7 election, the race remains the closest in at least 20 years. A new CNN-USA today national tracking poll has Bush and Gore locked in a tie among likely voters, 45 percent to 45 percent.

The race also is tight in Florida, once considered a safe bet for Bush. Three recent polls, including one for the St. Petersburg Times by Schroth & Associates, show Bush and Gore are in a statistical tie.

Both candidates entered Wednesday night's debate with specific goals; determined to avoid mistakes. That led to a cautious approach on both sides.

Gore hoped to look less threatening and sound less condescending than he did in last week's debate. He also wanted to avoid giving Bush any new ammunition for attacking his credibility.

After last week's debate, the Bush campaign contended Gore stretched the truth in a story about a 15-year-old girl who stood in a Sarasota classroom because of overcrowding. Gore also was forced to acknowledge he misspoke when he said he visited Texas with James Lee Witt, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to inspect damage from wildfires in 1998.

"He needs to relax and present himself as the guy you would like to invite to the Fourth of July barbecue in your back yard," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said before the debate.

Gore tried to loosen up.

When moderator Jim Lehrer suggested, "let's move on," the vice president joked about his own habit of talking long past the alloted time.

"Far be it from me to suggest otherwise," Gore deadpanned.

Forced at the end to directly answer questions about exaggerations, Gore apologized.

"I got some of the details wrong in some of the examples I used last week, and I'm sorry about that. I'm going to try to do better," he said. "I can't promise that I will never get another detail wrong. I can promise I will try not to -- and hard."

Bush, whose aides sought the more informal format around the U-shaped desk Wednesday night, hoped to reassure voters that he has a firm grasp of specifics in areas such as foreign policy. He also wanted to avoid getting lost in a maze of words and numbers, as he did in New Port Richey last weekend as he attempted to explain his proposed tax cuts.

In general, he succeeded on both counts.

"I've been known to mangle a syll-ABB-le or two," Bush joked.

The candidates gently sparred over issues such as racial profiling, rights for gays and lesbians and gun control.

Unlike the first debate, Gore also brought up Bush's record in Texas on hate crimes legislation, health insurance and the environment.

After both men said they opposed racial profiling by law enforcement officers and would support federal legislation banning the practice, Gore mentioned the Texas case of James Byrd. The African-American man was murdered by three white men, and Gore questioned Bush about why he did not support the hate crimes legislation that failed in the Texas legislature in 1999.

"The people who murdered Mr. Byrd got the ultimate," Bush said. "It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death."

Bush actually misspoke. A jury sentenced two of Byrd's attackers to death, and the third received a life sentence.

Gore also pressed Bush on whether he would support pending federal legislation that would prohibit gays and lesbians from being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Bush sidestepped the question.

"I don't know the particulars," he said. "I don't really think it's any of my concern how you conduct your sex life. I think it's a private matter... . I support equal rights but not special rights."

Gore defended his proposal to require states to issue licenses to anyone who purchases handguns. Bush, who opposes that idea, said Texans are encouraged to voluntarily purchase trigger locks and that he supports instant background checks of gun buyers.

When Gore started citing figures indicating that Texas ranks last in the number of families without health insurance, Bush had enough.

"If he's trying to allege I'm a hard-hearted person and I don't care about children, he's absolutely wrong," the Texas governor said.

The vice president said he was not questioning Bush's heart. "It's a question of his priorities and his values," Gore said.

The first half of the debate was devoted exclusively to foreign policy. Gore and Bush circled each other politely, agreeing more than they disagreed.

Regarding the Middle East and Yugoslavia, Bush praised efforts of the Clinton administration in both areas. But he used the discussion about the fighting in Israel to suggest that the White House had failed to maintain the strength of the coalition of countries -- assembled by Bush's father -- that fought Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein. He said the economic sanctions against Iraq are being violated.

"He is a danger," Bush said of Hussein. "We don't want him to be fishing in waters in the Middle East."

Gore responded that he thought it is "a little bit early to declare we should give up on the sanctions" against Iraq, then quickly added that he knew Bush was not suggesting that.

When Gore asked Bush about whether he would not use the military to intervene in cases like genocide, Bush replied: "If I think it is in our strategic interest, I will commit troops."

The two men agreed that most of the eight instances where the U.S. has committed troops over the last 20 years were justified.

"Some of them I have a conflict of interest in, if you know what I mean," Bush joked, referring to his father's administration.

They disagreed over Somalia and Haiti, with Bush saying he would not have committed troops to those actions. The Texas governor said the United States should not be involved in "nation-building."

"I'm going to be judicious in how we use our military," Bush said.

The Texas governor said Russia and other countries have to make their own decisions. He said the United States risks triggering the "ugly American" criticism if it insists on telling countries how to conduct themselves.

Gore said the "nation-building" phrase "sounded grandiose" but agreed that the country has to build military strength and be judicious in its use.

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