Perot and Clinton both claimed particular expertise in the subject, citing education reform initiatives they directed in their home states. Perot, predictably, drew the biggest laugh of the night, ending with an anecdote about a Houston youngster who "kept a chicken in his bathtub" and missed dozens of school days by taking it to livestock shows.
Perot, reciting statistics indicating that Americans pay the most but receive far from the best care, blamed Washington lobbyists for a system he says now serves special interests rather than average people.
Clinton again countered with a five-point plan he said would extend coverage to all Americans and reduce spiraling costs. "We need a drastic simplification of the health care system," he said, including restrictions on the insurance industry and limits on increases in pharmaceutical costs.
Bush stressed one of his favorite approaches--new limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.
Bush stressed that despite the nation's domestic woes, it can "not pull back into isolation" as it has at times in the past.
"We are the United States and we have a responsibility to lead," he said. Bush boasted of his foreign policy record, declaring: "Forty or 45 countries have gone democratic since I've been President. . . . This is exciting. . . . You hear a lot about the bad things that happened on my watch but I would hope people think this is pretty good."
Alluding to the military victory over Iraq, he added: "If it weren't for us, Saddam Hussein would be sitting on top of three-fifths of the world oil supply and he'd have nuclear weapons."
Clinton and Perot also spoke of an active international role, particularly in helping the former Soviet states with their political conversion, but asserted that the United States must strengthen its economy so that it can afford to exert its influence.
The Democratic candidate said he supports the so-called Brady bill, legislation which would establish a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun. Clinton also said he favors imposing restrictions on the sale of assault weapons.
The Brady bill was named for Jim Brady, President Reagan's first press secretary, who was paralyzed during a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
By contrast, Bush said he is opposed to the Brady bill because it is "not tough enough on criminals."
"I am not for national registration of firearms," the President said. He argued that some of the states with the toughest gun legislation have the highest rates of crime.
Perot agreed with Bush. "I agree it's a timid step in the right direction," he said of the Brady bill. " . . . Why pass a law that won't fix (the problem)?"
Nelson reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Richmond. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Rudy Abramson, John Broder, William Eaton, Douglas Frantz, Paul Houston, Jim Mann, Jonathan Peterson and David G. Savage, all in Washington.
RELATED STORIES, DEBATE EXCERPTS: A24, A25
The Battle of Richmond
\o7 Some notable quotes from Thursday's debate, the second of three contests between the presidential candidates:\f7
NOTABLE QUOTES FROM THE DEBATE
'You can't turn the White House into the Waffle House--you've got to say what you're for.'
'You have to decide whether you want to change or not. We do not need four more years of an economic theory that does not work.'
'While we sit here tonight, we will go into debt an additional $50 million in an hour and a half. Now, it's not the Republicans' fault, of course, and it's not the Democrats' fault. And what I'm looking for is, who did it?'
'You'll have a shot at me in four years, and you can vote me right out if you think I've done a lousy job. And I would welcome you to do that.'
'I intend to be there one term. I do not intend to spend one minute of one day thinking about reelection. I would take absolutely no compensation.'
'The exciting thing is that the fear of nuclear war is down, and you hear all the bad stuff that's happened on my watch--I hope people will recognize that this is something pretty good for mankind.'
HOW IT PLAYED
'I think the whole election was crystallized in one exchange between Bush and a woman who asked about how the recession had impacted each individual candidate. And Bush said, "I'm not sure I get it." Bill Clinton got it. That's the whole election crystallized.'
--Ray Mabus, former Democratic governor of Mississippi
'I liked the format. But I felt that the moderator treated Perot like a lesser candidate. She seemed to give Clinton all the time he wanted.'
--Betty Sachtleben, spokeswoman for Perot in Missouri
'A clear win.'
--Robert M. Teeter, President's campaign chairman
'A ll in all, I probably wish for a fourth candidate.'
--Steve Gunn, Independent member of Louisiana Legislature
Final Debate Is Monday
\o7 Here are details on the final presidential debate, on Monday:\f7
Time: 4 p.m. PDT
Place: East Lansing, Mich.
Format: Single moderator for first half, panel for the second
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN and Fox are carrying the debates live.