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THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Foes Make Nice for a Night to Win 'Swing' Vote

October 12, 2000|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush did something rare in American politics on Wednesday night: They disagreed without being disagreeable.

Most of the time, anyway. For much of their 90-minute debate, Bush and Gore set aside the heat of their close-fought campaign to acknowledge that they agreed on many issues, from foreign policy to racial discrimination. They occasionally praised each other's positions as sound. They even laughed with each other once or twice.

"It seems like we're having a great love fest tonight," Bush wisecracked at one point.

There was a hardheaded reason for the presidential candidates' sudden detour into bonhomie: They are both searching for ways to appeal to the roughly 10% of voters who are still undecided. Strategists on both sides say those "swing" voters don't like negative personal attacks.

So it was left to the third man at the table, the notoriously civil PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, to goad the two candidates toward disagreement.

And in the end, Lehrer succeeded--for even as Gore and Bush sought to sound affable, they also both wanted to show where some of their differences lie on issues that may move voters to decide.

On foreign policy, on gun control, on crime and on the environment, Wednesday's debate illuminated how two very different political cultures--Democratic and Republican--approach the nation's political center:

* On foreign policy, Bush struck a nationalist note, saying he would seek to reduce the nation's military commitments and be more vigilant over foreign aid; Gore called on Americans to accept the burden of being the world's leader.

* On gun control, Gore charged that Bush's policies in Texas had allowed weapons to fall into the hands of criminals; Bush said Gore favored licensing guns, which Gore acknowledged, at least in the case of new gun purchases.

* On crime, Gore called for stronger federal hate crime legislation, to add penalties for crimes committed because of the race, gender or sexual orientation of the victim. Bush pointed to the case of three men convicted of a racial murder in Texas and said crisply: "Guess what? They're going to be put to death. . . . I'm not sure how you enhance the penalty any more." (Bush overstated the case since one of the three convicted men received a life sentence and two were given a death sentence.)

* On the environment, Gore spoke passionately about global warming and other ecological threats and said he favors more vigorous federal action; Bush said he would move more slowly on global warming and would put the emphasis on state and local action.

No 'Knockout Punch' on Either Side

There was no single moment of truth, no "knockout punch" or obvious gaffe on either side.

In a broad sense, Gore came to Wednesday's debate seeking to show that he can be more likable than many voters seem to think; Bush came seeking to demonstrate that he is more capable at handling complex policy issues than some voters appear to believe.

Both succeeded, at least partially. Gore, who was widely lampooned for his insistent, aggressive performance in the first presidential debate Oct. 3, was low-key--and notably free of the raised eyebrows, grimaces and sighs that some viewers criticized.

Bush, for his part, navigated a 41-minute discussion of foreign policy issues, from the Middle East to Yugoslavia, with fluency and ease, and appeared sure-footed on domestic issues as well.

"This debate probably made a lot of voters think more highly of both candidates," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It may not be appropriate to call a win or loss."

The candidates' discussion of international issues touched on points of both agreement and disagreement.

Bush made a point of gracefully praising the Clinton administration, and by implication Gore, for some of its policies abroad, including the recent clashes in the Middle East.

"During the campaign . . . we ought to be speaking with one voice," Bush said. "I appreciate the way the administration has worked to calm the violence."

He said he credited President Clinton's decision to use force against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1999 air war over Kosovo for helping weaken Milosevic's hold on power.

"I don't think he would have fallen had we not used force. And I know there's some in my party that disagreed with that sentiment, but I supported the president," he said.

Gore, in turn, noted that he had supported Bush's father, President George Bush, in his decision to go to war against Iraq in 1991.

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