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    In 3rd debate, On third try, Gore finds right line of attack

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000

    I got the distinct impression, just after 10 last night, that George W. Bush ran out of gas. He had fought Al Gore blow for blow in what was the best of their three debates. He had cited facts and figures, at times even sounding as wonkish as Gore himself.

    But Gore hit his stride. The vice president found the right way to criticize Bush without sounding like a bragging known-it-all. It seemed as though Gore's favorite phrase was, "We have a HUGE difference between us on this issue."

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    By the end, Bush was making the same kind of off-camera sighs and audible pouts that had hurt Gore in the first debate. He gave in to his smirky side, and at the end was complaining about Gore's "high school debating trick" of daring to criticize him. Boo hoo.

    I understand that if Bush is your guy, right now you are saying: "You are a liberal idiot who did not watch the same debate I did." Feel free to say it. But remember, I said that Bush held his own in the first debate and had outright won the second, so if I suddenly got stupid it is a recent development.

    To sum up last night: Gore did better, longer. He won important points that will help him for the rest of the campaign. The most important of these was forcing Bush to admit, head-on, how much his tax cut helps the rich -- the "top 1 percent," as Gore chants.

    "Of course it does!" Bush finally replied with exasperation, after Gore said it for the millionth time. What Bush meant was, rich people pay taxes too, why shouldn't they get more tax cuts?

    But you don't say it like that. Gore rammed the point home, asking the audience of 144 people in St. Louis: How many of you make more than $330,000 a year? If you are all middle class, then a person making that much gets a bigger tax cut than all of you combined.

    Bush came out of the starter's gate very well. When Gore tried to slam him on patients' rights, Bush cited details of a Texas law that even includes the right to sue HMOs. Gore tried to hit Bush for backing the wrong bill in Congress, but Bush deftly batted it aside.

    Gore, who kept referring to Bush with mild disdain only as "the governor," quickly brought up Texas' rank of 50th in health care. "You need to know the record here," he said. But still, Bush did a good job of fighting back.

    Bush began to fall back on boilerplate rhetoric about Gore being a tax-and-spend liberal. But Gore got in good licks: He would use more of the surplus to pay off the national debt than Bush, who would spend more on a tax cut for the wealthy. Meanwhile, the federal work force under Clinton-Gore is the smallest since Kennedy.

    Asked to reply, Bush stammered: "Well . . . he's wrong." Good one. Right after that is when Bush coughed up "of course it does" to Gore's accusation about his plan helping the rich.

    Bush made a subtle and informed criticism of President Clinton's handling of the Middle East, saying the U.S. cannot force peace "on our timetable." Some experts believe that our trying to force the parties into an agreement was premature and may have contributed to the current violence.

    Bush ducked a question on how to ensure diversity in his administration, which gave Gore the opening to criticize him for opposing affirmative action. "The vice president keeps saying I'm against things," Bush complained, then complained again about being addressed directly by Gore: "Evidently rules don't mean anything, heh, heh, heh." Here he sounded like his father.

    My instant assessment is made without benefit of hearing any TV pundits or reading any instant polls. I didn't have enough time to get my cues from the media conspiracy. So maybe the majority of folks will believe Gore was too aggressive. Either way, it was a great debate and Bush has done far, far better than anyone expected. Election Day is now less than three weeks away, and it will be the closest decision since at least 1976, if not 1960. So who says one vote doesn't count? Now, go cancel me out.

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