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Gore, Bush Clash Over Drug Plans, Taxes, Abortion

Campaign: Candidates battle over the use of the surplus and the role of government. Democrat seeks more spending on education, health care. Republican touts tax cuts.


BOSTON — Al Gore and George W. Bush bickered Tuesday night over taxes, prescription drugs and abortion in a pointed but largely civil debate that revolved around their conflicting views of how best to capitalize on the nation's record prosperity.

Vice President Gore said the nation's projected budget surplus should be used to boost education, expand health care benefits and pay for tax cuts targeted at the middle class.

Texas Gov. Bush said the surplus should be used for a much more generous across-the-board tax cut that would benefit every American taxpayer. And, he said, lower taxes would have the added benefit of shrinking the size of the federal government by slashing its flow of revenues.

While there were plenty of tangents, the larger discussion centered on the presidential candidates' disparate views of the appropriate size and role of Washington.

Democrat Gore said the federal government should do more in these bountiful times, and he criticized Bush's priorities. "He would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% [of Americans] than all of the new spending he proposes for health care, prescription drugs and national defense all combined," Gore said--a formulation he repeated throughout the 90-minute session at the University of Massachusetts.

Republican Bush countered that his tax plan--the centerpiece of his economic agenda--is fairer than Gore's. Instead of picking "winners and losers," Bush said, his plan provides relief for everyone who pays taxes. "My opponent thinks the . . . surplus is the government's money. That's not what I think."

The nominees, running close in national polls, entered the first of their three debates Tuesday night with diametrically opposite goals.

Bush, widely perceived as the warmer and more affable of the two, sought to demonstrate enough intellectual depth and command of issues to allay doubts about his capacity to serve as president.

Gore, generally seen as more serious of purpose and better versed in policy, strived to show himself as a man of principle and conviction.

Waving their hands and sometimes pointing fingers, the candidates were mostly courteous--if occasionally exasperated in a melodramatic sort of way--as they reprised familiar positions and uttered set phrases from their standard stump speeches.

There was a bit of new ground broken. Bush said that, if he is elected president, he will not seek to overturn last week's federal approval of the RU-486 abortion pill. "I don't think the president can do that. I think once the decision's made, it's been made--unless it's proven unsafe to women."

The two also addressed for the first time the upheaval in Yugoslavia, where President Slobodan Milosevic has refused to step down in the face of evidence he lost the Sept. 24 election. Bush and Gore both ruled out the use of force to remove Milosevic from office.

Gore pounced on Bush's suggestion that the Russians "have a lot of sway" in Yugoslavia and might be able to persuade Milosevic to leave office. Gore pointed out that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has failed to recognize the election results.

But for the most part, it was Bush who repeatedly went on the offensive, attacking Washington in general and Gore specifically. Over and over, he accused Gore of using "fuzzy math" to distort his proposals.

At one point, he jibed at both Gore's math and his tendency toward hyperbole by needling, "This is a man who has great numbers. . . . I'm beginning to think, not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator."

One of the most heated exchanges was about character.

Bush reprised the 1996 fund-raising scandal, Gore's presence at a campaign money event at a Buddhist temple and the vice president's defense that there was "no controlling legal authority" against the fund-raising calls he made from his government office.

"I believe they've moved that sign 'The buck stops here' from the Oval Office desk to 'The buck stops here' on the Lincoln Bedroom," Bush cracked, referring to President Clinton's alleged use of the White House private quarters to reward big contributors.

"We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office," Bush said. "We can do better than the past administration has done. It's time for a fresh start."

Gore eschewed most such personal assaults. "We ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other," he said. "I want to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not make you out to be a bad person.

"You may want to focus on scandals. I want to focus on results."

But the vice president took the opportunity to distance himself from Clinton's travails. "I stand here as my own man, and I want you to see me for who I really am," he said, citing his 30-year marriage, status as a grandfather and his 24 years as a public servant. "I will never let you down."

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