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Miles Apart, but Both Play to the Center


BOSTON — Drawing bright lines in moderate tones, Al Gore and George W. Bush set the stage Tuesday night for a final act in the presidential campaign dominated by a fundamental disagreement about the role of government in society.

Though the two men arrived onstage in identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, they displayed sharply contrasting ideological visions in their high-stakes first debate.

The encounter lacked a single defining moment or even a memorable confrontation until the end, when Bush criticized the ethical record of Gore and President Clinton. And though Gore appeared somewhat more confident and steady, neither man made a major gaffe.

Bush stumbled a bit on some questions--surprisingly seeming somewhat unsteady while presenting his critique of the administration's military policy--but overall the Texan is likely to benefit from remaining cool in the face of Gore's unrelenting critique.

More striking than the personal differences during the encounter were the issue contrasts. In a campaign that some once feared would offer an echo, not a choice, the two men clashed over domestic and foreign issues ranging from tax cuts to Social Security and the use of American forces abroad. And neither hesitated to bundle together their differences into broader philosophical choices for the electorate.

Over and over again, Bush aggressively insisted that his agenda would shift power from Washington to states and individuals. "My vision is to empower Americans to make decisions for themselves in their own lives," Bush declared.

And Gore, while promising fiscal responsibility, relentlessly denounced Bush's proposed tax cut plan--insisting that the money would be better spent on public programs such as education, health care and prescription drugs for the elderly. As he has throughout the fall, Gore sought to make the election primarily a referendum about how to allocate the massive surpluses Washington is expected to accumulate over the next decade.

"The key question . . . is, will we use that prosperity wisely in a way that benefits all our people and doesn't go just to the few," Gore said. "I think we have to invest in education, protecting the environment, health care, a prescription drug benefit that goes to all seniors."

Bush's attack--and Gore's defense--could make the campaign's final sprint a test of one of the core calculations on which Gore has based an agenda. Gore is betting that the public will support considerably more government spending if it is presented within the framework of a balanced budget.

Bush advisors--looking at polls that show most Americans broadly prefer smaller than larger government--believe that, even in an age of budget surpluses, they can drive swing voters from Gore by painting him as the candidate of big government.

While both men seemed equally eager to draw clear ideological lines concerning issues such as tax cuts and Social Security, both also displayed a parallel instinct to court swing voters with centrist notes.

Anticipating Bush's efforts to portray his agenda as a return to big government, Gore from his first answer emphasized his commitment to maintaining a balanced federal budget and paying down the national debt. He repeatedly highlighted other "new Democrat" priorities: promising to continue welfare reform, criticizing Hollywood and "cultural pollution," reminding viewers that he supported the Persian Gulf War and noting that he had proposed a larger increase in defense spending over the next decade than did Bush. And he managed to note that he served in Vietnam.

Similarly, Bush balanced his criticism of overreaching government with repeated promises to work across party lines in Washington. At another point, he declared that he would try to help the nation reach common ground in the divisive debate about abortion rights.

With these ideological straddles, the debate highlighted both men's desires to move their parties toward the center--and the distance that remains in their definition of where that center lies.

It also highlighted the continuing Republican belief that Gore is vulnerable on his ethics. At the debate's end, Bush raised a series of administration scandals and suggested that Gore "must be responsible for decisions" he has made. As he did when Bill Bradley raised similar issues during the Democratic primary debates, Gore emphasized his support for campaign finance reform and insisted that voters want candidates to "focus on the problems and not attack each other."

With polls showing that most voters consider Gore more experienced and holding a stronger grasp of the issues, Bush's preeminent task Tuesday was similar to that faced by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980: convincing Americans that he has the knowledge and experience to fill the nation's highest office.

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