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Policy dominates Democratic faceoff

Al Gore and Bill Bradley stick to particulars only policy wonks can appreciate, leaving those looking for excitement looking elsewhere.

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 28, 1999


HANOVER, N.H. -- For policy wonks, the first forum featuring Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley offered deliciously intricate discussions on health care, education and the environment.

For voters just beginning to notice the presidential campaigns, Wednesday night's forum was like walking into an honors government class here at Dartmouth College.

Anyone who hasn't already been paying close attention would have been lost.

Gore and Bradley, two policy wonks who pride themselves on their grasp of government theories and statistics, spent an hour discussing many specifics of their campaign proposals.

Anyone looking for excitement would have quickly switched channels to Game 4 of the World Series.

The first dual appearance of the Democratic candidates, in a town forum sponsored by CNN and a New Hampshire television station, underscored the broad agreement between them on major issues if not on the particulars of addressing them.

Gore and Bradley each want to expand health coverage, reduce poverty, improve public education, tighten gun control laws and protect the environment. And they offered their visions in dry, monotone responses that did little to dispel their labels as dull speakers.

The devil is in the details.

As expected, Gore went after Bradley's $65-billion a year proposal to make health care coverage available to most every American. He cited a new study that projects Bradley's plan costing $1.4-trillion over 10 years, more than the expected budget surplus after setting Social Security aside.

"If you spend that entire surplus on the first campaign proposal, that does not leave money to save Medicare," said Gore, who has a less expensive proposal to insure all children by 2005.

Countered Bradley: "We each have our own experts. I dispute the cost figure that Al has used."

Although the first primary is three months away, the stakes for Wednesday night's forum were high, particularly for the vice president. Bradley has crept ahead of Gore in some polls in New Hampshire, which hosts the nation's first primary Feb. 1.

The vice president couldn't wait to get started.

When Gore and Bradley walked onto the stage 15 minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, Gore assumed the role of host, asking the audience, "Now what? Why don't you all start asking some questions while we're waiting. Anybody have a question?"

Before the formal forum began, the two Democrats agreed that sanctions against Cuba should be continued and that campaign finance laws should be tightened.

Gore, who bested Republican Jack Kemp in the 1996 vice presidential debate in St. Petersburg, appeared particularly at ease. Dressed in a tan suit, he frequently asked questioners about themselves before addressing the policy issue.

"Tell me about your family," Gore asked one woman, who answered that she had a husband and a 17-month-old daughter.

"Which one gives you the most trouble?" Gore joked.

He was less successful on other occasions. One of the vice president's favorite jokes, which jabs at health maintenance organizations, fell flat.

Bradley appeared even stiffer. Dressed in a blue suit, he sounded dismissive of a question about his credentials on the environment -- a strong area for Gore.

"I suppose the specific answer is just look at my career in the U.S. Senate," Bradley answered.

The former New York Knicks star also passed up easy shots, like when he was asked about the Clinton administration's fundraising excesses in 1996.

"Uh . . .," Bradley started, "I think there obviously were some irregularities that were addressed."

Throughout the evening, Gore appeared to be the aggressor. He noted that Bradley voted to experiment with tuition vouchers, which he opposes. He also pointed out that some black Americans and gay activists oppose Bradley's suggestion that the 1964 civil rights act be amended to include homosexuals.

The vice president even defused a pointed question from the audience that alluded to President Clinton's impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"I understand the disappointment and anger you feel toward President Clinton, and I felt it myself," Gore said. "I also feel the American people want to move on and turn the page and focus on the future and not the past. He's my friend. I took an oath under the Constitution to serve the country in thick and thin."

Bradley, meanwhile, stuck to his approach on the campaign trail. He did not mention any of Gore's proposals as he sketched his vision for the presidency.

"You ought to have big solutions to big problems," Bradley said, "because that is what America is all about."

After Gore and Bradley, tonight's CNN forum featuring five Republicans seems like an afterthought. Front-runner George W. Bush, who has received some criticism here for spending too little time in the state, is skipping the event. His wife is receiving an award at Southern Methodist University.

That leaves Arizona Sen. John McCain, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, conservative activist Gary Bauer and talk show host Alan Keyes.

One poll shows McCain creeping up on Bush in New Hampshire, with Bush at 39 percent and McCain at 27 percent. But the Texas governor cut a sweet deal to make up for his absence tonight, agreeing to a live interview with WMUR in Manchester.

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