Herald news services
BOSTON — Al Gore and George W. Bush dueled sharply in their first presidential debate Tuesday night over how to spend the surplus and pay for prescription drug coverage, with each man testily throwing out a blizzard of facts and figures to support his case.
Neither candidate scored a knockout punch but instead provided the national television audience of an estimated 50 million viewers with a fast-paced encounter that brought their different policy proposals and personal styles into sharp focus.
Gore appeared tightly coiled at times, jabbing with his right hand to emphasize his points. Bush came across as relaxed, often holding out both hands with his palms up to underscore his points. Gore was the more assertive of the two, occasionally interrupting moderator Jim Lehrer to ask if he could just make one more comment about something that Bush said.
Within barely minutes gone in the 90-minute debate at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Bush and Gore accused each other of distorting positions and misleading the public. The two men also clashed sharply on abortion, with Bush saying that he believes he would unable to overturn government approval of an abortion pill.
As the two debated which candidate has the best plan for prescription drug coverage, Gore accused Bush of providing coverage to only 5 percent of seniors, while Gore said he would cover 100 percent.
"That is just totally false," an exasperated Bush interjected.
Then, when Bush charged that 50 million people won’t get a tax cut under the Gore plan, the vice president interrupted: "Not so!"
Each man came equipped with a refrain.
For Bush, it was the accusation that Gore was practicing "fuzzy math" with his attacks, sometimes rendered as "fuzzy Washington math."
For Gore, it was a loud, audible sigh, meant to convey profound skepticism over Bush’s claims about the economy, prescription drugs and other issues.
While Gore and Bush traded rhetorical jabs, hundreds of police in riot gear and 2,000 to 3,000 protesters squared off on the campus, resulting in at least six arrests, police said.
The protesters, some of whom objected to the exclusion of third party candidates Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from the debate, chanted slogans against the Democratic and Republican candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Inside the hall, one of the strongest clashes came over Gore’s oft-stated charge that the bulk of Bush’s tax cut would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
Bush’s plan, Gore said, would "spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the new spending he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense all combined. I think those are the wrong priorities."
Bush disagreed, pounding away on his theme that Gore’s plan would increase the bureaucracy and "empower the government" instead of the people.
The two men also drew a clear distinction between their views on abortion. Bush, asked whether he would try to overturn the government’s approval last week of the RU-486 abortion pill, did not answer the question directly. Instead, Bush, who is seeking to appeal to both abortion opponents and supporters, said: "I don’t think a president can do that … I think once the decision is made it is made." Bush then expressed his concern about abortion in general, saying, "I am worried that it will cause more Americans to have abortions. I think what the next president should do is promote a culture of life in America."
Gore, by contrast, strongly declared his support of the abortion pill approval and charged that Bush would appoint perhaps four new members of the Supreme Court who would oppose abortion. Gore then sought to turn Bush’s central argument — that he trusts the people to make better decisions than the government — against the governor.
"He trusts the government to order a woman to do what he thinks she ought to do," Gore said. "I trust women to make the decisions that affect their lives, their destinies and their bodies."
The jabs and counter-jabs occurred most frequently over the competing tax plans.
"Why is it that the wealthiest 1 percent get their tax cuts the first year, but 95 percent of seniors have to wait four or five years before they get a single penny?" Gore asked
"I guess my answer to that is, the man’s running on ‘Mediscare,’ trying to frighten people in the voting booth," Bush said.
At another point, when moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush whether he wanted to respond to Gore’s assertion that he would try to build bipartisanship, Bush prefered a short answer.
"Yeah, why haven’t they done it for seven years?" Bush said.
As Lehrer unsuccessfully tried to keep the candidates to the agreed-upon time limits, Bush and Gore interrupted each other to try to make their points. Bush said the vice president has been in an administration for eight years that failed to provide drug coverage and shouldn’t get another chance.
"Eight years ago they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors, and four years ago they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors, and now they’re campaigning on getting prescriptions drugs for seniors," Bush said. "It seems like they can’t get it done."
The topic finally turned to foreign policy more than a half-hour into the debate, and Gore voiced his support for the political ousting of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, although he said he would not use force.
Bush, on the other hand, said he would encourage Russia to help resolve the Serbian election. In doing so, he handed Gore an opportunity to play off a topic that is perceived as a weakness for Bush. Gore, sounding at once complimentary and condescending, chided Bush for suggesting the Russians would help remove Milosevic from office.
"Being as they have not yet been willing to recognize (Vojislav) Kostunica as the lawful winner of the election, I’m not sure it’s right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate this dispute," Gore said.
"Obviously, we wouldn’t use the Russians if they didn’t agree with our answer," Bush replied.
"Well, they don’t," Gore shot back.
The criticism grew sharper in the debate’s closing moments, when Bush criticized Gore over the fund-raising scandals of the Clinton era. He mentioned Gore’s controversial visit to a Buddhist temple, where robed priests later made donations, and said Gore needed to take responsibility for what went on in the White House.
"I believe they’ve moved that sign, ‘The Buck Stops Here,’ from the Oval Office desk to the Lincoln Bedroom, and that’s not right," Bush said.
"You may want to focus on scandals. I want to focus on results," Gore countered, maneuvering to turn the spotlight away from questions of his own fund-raising activities. But when the vice president challenged Bush to support campaign finance legislation, the Texas governor said bluntly: "This man has no credibility on the issue."
The debate schedule continues with a face-off between the vice presidential candidates on Thursday in Kentucky, as well as two more presidential meetings, on Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and on Oct. 17 in St. Louis.
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