NASHUA, N.H. — Al Gore and Bill Bradley clashed sharply over health care and more gently on education in a mostly desultory and decorous appearance here Friday night.
Sharing a stage with Bradley for the second time, Gore repeated his charges that the former senator's health care plan would undermine the federal budget and consume funds needed to strengthen Medicare. Bradley, intensifying his criticism of his rival, charged that Gore's competing health care plan would fail to cover enough of the uninsured.
"I do provide access to affordable quality health care for all Americans and his plan does not," Bradley charged. "So my question to you [Gore] is, who will you leave out?"
Constrained by a town meeting format that saw them mostly responding to a rambling assortment of questions from an audience at Daniel Webster College, the two men did little to sharpen, or even explain, their differences. The 90-minute session was sponsored and broadcast by the ABC News program "Nightline."
Apart from health care, the one issue on which they clashed was education, with Gore accusing Bradley of lacking a sufficient commitment to federal action.
"I think it should be a national priority, not just nibbling around the edges," said Gore, using the same "nibbling" phrase that Bradley has used to criticize him and President Clinton.
Even their styles were similar: Though Gore was more aggressive than Bradley, the vice president was not nearly as frenetic as he was in the two men's first encounter in Hanover, N.H., in October. And though Bradley took the offensive more this time, he maintained a characteristically low-key style.
One of the most interesting moments came when the two were asked about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's declaration in a GOP debate Monday night that Jesus Christ is the philosopher who had most influenced him. Bradley used the question to explain his own decision not to discuss his religious faith on the campaign trail.
"In my own case," he said, "I decided that personal faith is private and I will not discuss it in public, so I am not going to get into the kind of things you saw in that debate in Iowa last week."
While insisting that public officials should be allowed to "affirm" their faith, Gore came closer to criticizing the Republican front-runner. "Every single person in our public life ought to recognize an obligation to communicate tolerance of all religious faiths and traditions, especially the religious faiths and traditions that are held by a minority in our country." Gore added that he believes atheists "have just as much a right" to participate in setting public policy as any other Americans.
Bradley and Gore met with polls showing them locked in a fierce competition here in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's first primary Feb. 1. Though Gore still leads Bradley in national surveys of Democrats, polls show Bradley with a strong chance of a breakthrough here.
Of six polls released in New Hampshire this month, five have shown Bradley narrowly leading Gore--though most are within the surveys' margins of error. The latest, released Friday by ABC and the Washington Post, showed Bradley with 48% and Gore with 45%, again within the poll's margin of error.
Gore advisors maintain those numbers partly reflect the fact that Bradley has heavily outspent Gore on television advertising in the state recently. But Bradley has clearly found an audience, particularly among more independent, upscale and well-educated voters.
On several issues, the two men Friday could have read the other's lines. Both endorsed affirmative action, both said they would seek to allow gays to serve openly in the military and neither answered directly when asked if he would provide Taiwan a missile defense system.
"Some kinds of missile defense systems are well within the bounds of the relationship; others are not," Gore said vaguely.
Asked early in the debate about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the two men displayed subtle differences in campaign style. While talking about the need for moral renewal, Gore rattled through a series of policies, ranging from gun control to providing more psychologists and guidance counselors in high schools. Bradley talked about one specific policy--gun control--then told a lengthy story about listening to high school students discuss their experiences with violence.
Slightly more sparks flew on education, with Gore challenging Bradley over his Senate votes in favor of plans to test school vouchers. Bradley said that while he voted for vouchers, he did not view them as the answer to the problems of public education.
The one exception to the evening's somewhat abstracted tone was health care--the issue that has most sharply divided the two contenders. Given the opportunity to question Bradley, Gore asked why he did not set aside any funds from the anticipated $1-trillion federal surplus over the next decade for Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly.