Bush, Gore face off on foreign policy questions

By MICHAEL KRANISH

The Boston Globe

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – In a relatively low-key presidential debate Wednesday night that focused heavily on foreign policy, Al Gore and George W. Bush laid out their visions of world policy, hate crime laws and gun control with far less of the friction that dominated last week’s face-off in Boston.

Bush offered support so frequently for the Clinton administration actions in the Balkans, Rwanda and the Middle East that the Texas governor joked at one point, “It seems like we are having a big lovefest tonight.” Still, there were polite but serious disagreements, with Bush saying he didn’t support the Clinton administration’s intervention in Haiti.

A significant dispute also emerged over the continued grip on power of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Bush, asked whether he had any difference of opinion with Gore on the Middle East, said that the Clinton administration hadn’t done enough to oust Hussein. Asked if he thought the Clinton policy on Hussein was a “failure,” Bush responded: “I do.”

Gore, in rebuttal, noted that as a U.S. Senator, he supported the 1991 Gulf War and the policy pursued by Bush’s father, former President Bush. But Gore said that when he became vice president in 1993, Hussein was still in power even though the U.S. won the war.

“At the end of that war, it was not finished in a way that removed Saddam Hussein from power,” Gore said. “That is the situation that was left when I got there.” Gore said he would provide “robust” support to groups trying to oust Hussein.

The candidates seemed eager to agree on Israel, where the peace process has been derailed by an outbreak of violence in the last week. Both candidates urged PLO leader Yasser Arafat to call for an end to the violence. Neither suggested the need to pressure Israel to swear off the use of deadly force in putting down the violence.

“We need to insist that Arafat send out instructions to halt some of the provocative acts of violence that have been going on,” Gore said. Agreed Bush: “We ought to be speaking with one voice. I appreciate the way the administration has been working to calm the tensions.”

Bush also said the Clinton administration “did the right thing” by not intervening with force in Rwanda, where 600,000 people were killed in ethnic violence.

Gore, who was criticized even within his campaign for his frequent sighs and interruptions during the Boston encounter, Wednesday night joked on several occasions that he wanted to stay within time limits and not interject his thoughts while Bush spoke. While Gore had planned to continue his attack on Bush’s tax cut plan, the subject came up only briefly, with the two once again disagreeing over whether it provided too much benefit to the wealthy.

While the debate is bound to be described as being on a higher plane than the Boston encounter, foreign policy has not been a major issue in the campaign, at least not until the last week of events in Serbia and Israel. At one point, Gore talked about the importance of “reform of the IMF,” a reference to the International Monetary Fund that may not have been familiar to some viewers.

For Bush, whose foreign policy experience has been cited by some as a comparatively weak part of his presidential portfolio, the debate was an opportunity to show that he was comfortable in discussing the issue for the first 40 minutes.

Bush’s main point, as it has been throughout the campaign, was his belief that the United States is overcommitted around the world. While Bush said he supported the Clinton administration’s bombing of Kosovo, he said he wants U.S. troops to leave the region as soon as it is prudent to do so. Attacking the Clinton administration’s intervention in Haiti, Bush said: “I am worried about overcommitting around the world. I didn’t think Haiti was worthwhile. It was not very successful.”

On the racial profiling question, Gore said he was prepared not only to issue an executive order to eliminate the practice among federal agencies, but would also support legislation to stop it locally.

“It’s just flat wrong,” Bush said of racial profiling. “I don’t want to federalize local police forces,” he said, but warned that local authorities should know there would be “federal consequences.”

The discussion led to one of the sharpest disagreements of the night, when Gore suggested that Bush had failed to follow through on tough legislation against hate crimes in his home state.

Bush insisted that Texas had existing hate crime laws and said that three men convicted in the racial murder of a black man, James Byrd, had been sentenced to death. “You can’t enhance the penalty anymore than to put these three thugs to death.”

The Bush campaign put out a fact sheet later saying that only two of the men were sentenced to death while the third received a life sentence.

Gore, however, said that a new hate crimes bill supported by members of Byrd’s family had died in the Texas Legislature without strong support from Bush.

The two candidates disagreed over gun control, with Gore saying he favored photo identification cards required for new handgun purchases and Bush opposing it.

At another point, Gore sought to portray Bush as differing with his own running mate Dick Cheney on gay rights, saying that Cheney was rethinking his position on gay unions. But both Bush and Gore said they opposed gay marriage, focusing their disagreement over the extent of rights that should be allowed for civil unions between gays and lesbians. Bush sought to play down the disagreement, saying that “I don’t think it is any of my concern how you conduct your sex life.”

Last week’s debate in Boston was scored a Gore win in early “snap” polls, but Bush wound up gaining the advantage after a couple of days, partly because he mostly held his own and exceeded the deliberately low expectations set by his staff. Gore may have lost some ground because of the perception that he was too condescending, especially when he sighed and averted his eyes from Bush. Gore also was criticized by the Bush camp and in a spate of news stories for exaggerating during the debate, prompting the vice president to say before Wednesday night’s encounter that he would try to be more careful with his facts.

Still, most polls show the race remains extremely close, with neither candidate holding a statistically meaningful advantage. The vast majority of voters have already made up their minds, with each candidate having a solid base of about 40 to 45 percent of the electorate. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan, who have not been invited to the debates, have about 5 percent and 1 percent in the polls, respectively. That leaves an undecided group of about 5 to 10 percent of the electorate. The undecided group is made up largely of women, moderates and independents.

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