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In final shot at title, the gloves come off


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000

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

Hot poll: Who do you feel won the final presidential debate?

Tim Nickens: Finally, a debate worth watching.

ST. LOUIS -- Who, as president, would be the biggest spender? That was the major question that divided presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore in their final -- and by far their most effective -- debate Tuesday night.

While their debate touched on a variety of issues including health care, education, the Middle East, the military, gun control and the death penalty, spending was the touchstone to which they returned again and again.

Bush accused Gore of proposing "the largest increase in federal spending in years . . . three times bigger than what President Clinton proposed . . . (and) more than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis combined.'

As a result, he said, "there's just not going to be enough money" for everything that his Democratic opponent has proposed.

"If this were a spending contest, I'd come in second," Bush declared.

Gore hotly denied the charge. "Absolutely not!" he proclaimed.

The vice president said that his Republican opponent would be the biggest spender because he has promised to enact more than $1.6-trillion in across the board tax cuts that would leave very little money for new programs. At the same time, he said, Bush is promising an expensive plan to privatize a portion of investments under Social Security.

"Show me the money," Gore demanded, laying down a challenge to Bush. "Which one of those promises will you break and which will you keep?"

Under his own proposals, Gore said, the federal budget will be balanced every year and "federal spending will be the smallest that it has been in 50 years."

Gore also repeated his contention, which has been challenged by a number of experts, that the "reinventing government" initiative he led over the past eight years had cut more than 300,000 federal jobs. Meanwhile, he said, Bush has allowed the size of the government in Texas to increase.

"The federal government has gone down; Texas has gone up," he said.

It was the third and last time the two candidates would have a large national audience to listen to their campaign pitch before the election Nov. 7. And in the crunch, they both turned in their best performances.

Bush was more in command of his material than in previous debates. And Gore succeeded in modifying his television demeanor to affect what campaign manager William Daley described as "the intensity of the first debate and the genuineness of the second."

Gore's supporters were particularly happy when Bush acknowledged that a large portion of his tax cut would go to the wealthy -- something that the vice president has been emphasizing in each of the debates.

"Of course it does," Bush said. "If you pay taxes you are going to get a benefit. People who pay taxes will get tax relief." But he quickly added that wealthy people, who now pay 62 percent of the taxes, will end up paying 64 percent under his plan.

As it past debates, the two candidates contrasted themselves on the issues. Gore said he favored a bipartisan patients' bill of rights now pending in Congress; Bush made it clear that he didn't. Bush advocated giving private school vouchers to students whose public schools have failed; Gore strong opposed vouchers. Bush said he was in favor of local control of the schools; Gore spoke out in favor of more federal intervention.

But on some issues, the distinctions between the two were fuzzy. Although they clearly disagreed on the best ways to hold public schools accountable for meeting educational standards, the differences were not clear.

Meanwhile, they agreed that President Clinton had done the right thing to negotiate a cease-fire in the Middle East, that the sex and violence in today's music and movies has made parenting difficult, that government should include minorities and that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime.

Gore tried to draw a distinction between himself and Bush on the issue of affirmative action, asking the Republican if he would support the current Supreme Court stance on the issue. But his direct question was ruled out of order, and Bush did not have to answer it.

The debate was nearly canceled as a result of the tragic death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in a small plane crash Monday night. Officials of the Bush and Gore campaigns worried that voters might think it crass of them to debate in the wake of his death. But the event proceeded as planned after Carnahan's widow said her husband would have wanted it that way.

Nevertheless, Gore did cancel a scheduled appearance at a rally in Kansas City today. Carnahan had been planning to campaign with Gore at that event. Instead, Gore will fly to Des Moines, Iowa, for a substitute rally. The subject of his speech will be Social Security.

Both Gore and Bush briefly suspended television advertising in Missouri as an expression of respect for Carnahan. Bush's ads were suspended for 48 hours; Gore's were canceled until Friday.

So far this year, the debates have produced a disappointing audience. An estimated 37.6-million people watched last week's debate on television -- fewer than had been anticipated.

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