WAUWATOSA, Wis. — On the scorecard I kept while watching the first presidential debate with a group of undecided and persuadable voters in this Milwaukee suburb, both candidates accomplished most of their goals. Their performance reinforced my feeling that Al Gore and George W. Bush have developed into very capable contenders, with clearly defined policy differences and leadership styles.
They are giving the country the kind of choice it deserves.
I must report that many of the 10 folks around the table objected to the candidates’ repeatedly breaking the time limits and ground rules they themselves had set. It struck some of them as a metaphor for the way politicians say one thing and do another. Some of them wished a third party — either an independent candidate or a more assertive moderator than Jim Lehrer appeared to be — had been there to tell Gore and Bush, "Just answer the question and move on."
Gore, most of them said, looked "more presidential," but Bush clearly held his own, and — just as the overnight polls indicated — no votes were won or lost around our table.
Looking back at the list of five goals for each candidate I had set down in a previous column, I give them high marks. In summary:
(1) Bush did persist in pushing his education record and proposals for school reform. When education became the topic, he perked up noticeably and the fatigue I thought I had seen halfway through the 90 minutes instantly disappeared. Our voters also thought Bush came on strong in the last half-hour.
(2) When Lehrer raised the character question, Bush did suggest that the Buddhist temple visit and "no controlling legal authority" displayed a contempt on Gore’s part for higher standards. But, when given a second opening, he failed to do what Bill Bradley had done when he debated Gore: Make the case that a candidate who evades the truth cannot earn the trust a president needs to govern.
(3) Bush did repeatedly assert that he had governed in a bipartisan way in Texas and is prepared to do the same in Washington. And he argued that partisanship had kept the Clinton-Gore administration from achieving many of its goals. But he has room to expand his indictment of the political climate of Washington, which much of the public loathes.
(4) He made no verbal gaffes. The claim that he is language-impaired is no longer plausible.
(5) He was relaxed, but not particularly light-hearted. The one humorous shot — that Gore had invented not only the Internet but the calculator — came across as rehearsed. Now that he has displayed some depth, Bush can afford to let more of his personality and good humor show.
Gore did equally well on my scorecard. To wit:
(1) Gore went after the Bush tax cut from the opening moment to the close, attacking the centerpiece of his opponent’s economic plan on both fairness and policy grounds. What he did not do, of course, is challenge the assumption that vast trillions of surplus are out there to be exploited, because his own budget, no less than Bush’s, depends on the presumption that these projected surpluses will materialize. Nobody wants to be the Grinch.
(2) He did less to question Bush’s Texas record than I had expected, perhaps because he wanted to drive home the tax issue and perhaps because he is saving the environmental-social policy stuff, where Bush is vulnerable, for later debates.
(3) On what I called "the three Cs" of Clinton, Court and Congress, Gore bragged of the administration’s economic record, virtually ignored the "threat" of an unchecked Republican Congress and focused hard on the possibility of Bush appointees reversing the Supreme Court’s support of abortion rights. I thought Bush was sending an important signal by saying he would not try to overturn the recent FDA approval of the abortion pill RU-486 — strengthening my belief that abortion rights are now irreversible in this country. But Gore clearly wants to keep the issue alive.
(4) Gore ventured close to the borderline of the slow-paced, pedantic, condescending tone he sometimes has shown in the past, but rarely crossed it. His theatrical sighs — indicating disbelief at Bush’s statements — were a subject of comment, and our voters, like many others, wearied of hearing the phrase "the wealthiest 1 percent."
(5) Surprisingly, Gore did nothing to try to rattle Bush. This tactic, which he has used in almost all his past debates, perhaps has become too much his trademark for him to risk repeating it. But if the race stays as close as it now looks to be, I would not be surprised to see Gore revert to form.
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