Debate arena turns mean


Cox News Service

ST. LOUIS — With only three weeks left before the presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore met in a final debate Tuesday night, presenting profoundly different views of the role of government.

Bush, the two-term Republican governor of Texas, presented himself as a Washington outsider, able to get things done in the nation’s capital by bringing both parties to together to cut taxes, improve education and overhaul federal retirement and health care programs.

Gore, the Democratic vice president, portrayed himself as a champion of working families and vowed to continue the unprecedented economic prosperity of the last eight years, to improve education, expand health care and keep Social Security and Medicare solvent.

Gore was much more aggressive in their third and final session, in which the candidates took questions from undecided voters at Washington University.

"If you want someone who will support … the big drug companies, this is your man," Gore said at one point, gesturing toward the governor. "If you want someone who will fight for you … then I want to fight for you."

By contrast, Bush appeared halting at times and, at moments, had trouble hiding his irritation with Gore’s debating style, marked by direct challenges and the practice of hovering near Bush as the governor answered questions.

Gore’s manner prompted sharp post-debate comments from the Bush camp. "I think (the American people) also saw the real Al Gore who resorted to attacks throughout the night," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan.

At one point, Gore challenged Bush to clarify his position on affirmative action, perhaps the most confrontational moment of the debate. Bush said he opposed quotas, but Gore noted that quotas and affirmative action are not the same thing. Bush avoided answering directly by citing the rules of the debate.

Gore also responded more strongly than in the past to Bush’s assertion that the government would grow in size under Gore. The vice president said he had helped shrink the government to its smallest size since John F. Kennedy’s administration, and that the size of the state government in Texas had increased under Bush.

Questioning began with an audience member asking what the candidates would do to curb health maintenance organizations. That’s when the sparring began in earnest.

Gore repeated his call for passage of the Dingily-Norwood health care reform bill pending in Congress, which tips the balance of power more toward consumers than other pending measures. Bush touted a Texas law that allows consumers to sue HMOs if they feel they have been denied coverage unjustly.

And in a mano-a-mano moment that looked as if it might erupt into a schoolyard fight, Gore, hand in pocket, moved toward Bush, challenging him to say whether he would back the reform bill.

Later, asked what the candidates would do to lower prescription drug costs, Bush described his plan to extend block grants to states to help senior citizens afford medication.

"I’m against price controls," he said. "I think price controls hurt our ability to continue important research and development."

Gore responded with an irritated: "All right, here we go again." Saying Bush would back the drug companies. Gore said, "If you want someone who will fight for you and who will fight for the middle-class families and working men and women who are sick and tired of having their parents and grandparents pay higher prices for prescription drugs than anybody else, then I want to fight for you."

Gore later attacked Bush’s health record in Texas.

"Under Governor Bush, Texas has sunk to be 50th out of 50 in health insurance for their citizens," he said, reviving attacks about Bush’s answer to a debate question last week when he said that the state spends $4.7 billion on health care for the poor.

A state comptroller’s report found that $3.5 billion, or three quarters of that total, came from charity care from doctors and hospitals, local governments or charities.

Bush shot back, taking aim at the Clinton administration’s failed efforts to reform health care in 1993.

"I don’t want the federal government making decisions for consumers or for providers," he said. "I remember what the administration tried to do in 1993. They tried to have a national health care plan and fortunately, it failed."

He attributed the high number of uninsured Texas residents to the state’s size, its fast growth and its border with Mexico.

On a key area of disagreement, tax cuts, Bush repeated the assertion he frequently makes on the stump that Gore would increase federal spending higher than it has been in years. Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer if that claim is true, Gore jumped at the chance to answer.

"I’m so glad that I have a chance to knock that down," he said, going on to repeat his claim that Bush’s proposed 10-year $1.3 trillion tax cut will mean, "more money for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the money he budgets for education, health care, and defense combined."

Bush said that his tax cut benefits everyone since it cuts all marginal tax rates. But he did not deny that it benefits the wealthy, too.

"Of course it does," he said. "If you pay taxes you’re going to get a benefit. People who pay taxes will get tax relief." He added that the wealthiest’s tax burden would increase from 62 percent to 64 percent of the total.

"He wants to grow the government and I want to trust you with your own money," he said.

Most of the questions dealt with domestic issues, and when they turned to foreign policy, the two candidates generally agreed. Both said U.S. forces should remain the world’s most powerful, with a clear strategy and mission.

Bush also appeared on the defensive when a questioner said he appeared less than serious in the previous debate when he discussed the use of capital punishment in Texas. Bush replied that the death penalty was one of the more difficult parts of being governor.

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