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THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

Bush, Gore Find Room to Agree in Second Debate

Campaign: Accord, even compliments, mark exchanges on overseas issues. Domestic questions bring out the challenges.

October 12, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In a dignified exchange that resembled conversation more than combat, Al Gore and George W. Bush met here Wednesday night for their second debate, voicing agreement on many foreign policy issues but parting company on domestic affairs.

The first half of the debate--a 90-minute exchange at Wake Forest University here--sounded a lot like a gentlemanly graduate seminar on geopolitics. Unlike their scrappy meeting a week ago, the event rang with the sounds of "I agree with you" and "I haven't heard a big difference."

The vice president and the Texas governor largely agreed on Middle East policy, which has taken center stage in recent weeks, as rioting has engulfed much of Israel.

Asked what the United States should do right now in this political powder keg, Gore said that the priorities should be to ease tensions, to call on Syria to release three captured Israeli soldiers and to insist that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat push to end acts of violence.

In a laudatory chorus heard through much of the early exchanges, Bush said: "I appreciate the way the administration has worked hard to calm the tensions. Like the vice president, I call on Chairman Arafat to have his people pull back to make the peace."

Bush also handed the Clinton administration a bouquet for the way it handled the bailout of Mexico during its economic crisis in 1995. And he praised the administration's positions on Yugoslavia, Colombia and Rwanda.

The two men were asked whether they would have deployed the military differently in eight instances over the last 20 years. And Bush was asked specifically if American troops should have intervened militarily in Rwanda, where 600,000 people died in ethnic violence and the United States sent soldiers on a humanitarian mission.

"We're having a great love fest now," Bush cracked, before turning serious, saying that the Clinton administration was correct to train Nigerian troops to deal with "situations just such as this in Rwanda. And so I thought they made the right decision not to send U.S. troops into Rwanda."

Differences Emerge Toward Debate's End

Maybe it was the chairs and the curved table--the same set used in the collegial vice presidential debate last Thursday. Maybe it was Gore's realization that, while he won the first debate on content, his assertiveness, embellishments and impolite sighing cost him heavily in subsequent opinion polls.

But Wednesday night's meeting was achingly polite, at least until the last half, when real differences on domestic policy began to poke through in exchanges on gay marriage, hate crime legislation, the environment and Bush's record in Texas.

Even an exchange on Gore's veracity, which easily could have turned slashingly negative, remained largely polite. Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer whether Gore's many inaccurate or embellishing statements amounted to "a serious issue" that voters should consider, Bush opened with a quip.

"Well, we all make mistakes. I've been known to mangle a syllable or two myself," he said, deliberately mispronouncing syllable.

In a more somber vein, Bush added: "I think credibility is important. It's important for the president to be credible with the Congress. It's important for the president to be credible with foreign nations."

Bush then cited a series of Gore's misstatements.

In response, the vice president apologized for his mistakes and vowed: "I'm going to try to do better." Such errors, Gore acknowledged, have interfered with his message.

"I can't promise that I will never get another detail wrong," he added. "I can promise you that I will try not to. But I will promise you this, with all the confidence in my heart and in the world, that I will do my best if I'm elected president, I will work my heart out to get the big things right for the American people."

Gore voiced enthusiastic support for a ban on racial profiling, saying that he would work to make such legislation "the first civil rights act of the 21st century." Bush warned against any moves that might "federalize" local police forces, but he acknowledged under Lehrer's questioning that he could support a federal law banning racial profiling.

The racial profiling discussion segued into a polite but probing exchange about hate crime legislation, in which Gore repeatedly queried Bush about what the Democrat described as the need for such laws in Texas.

Gore noted the murder of James Byrd Jr., 49, who was chained to a truck and dragged to his death on an East Texas road in 1998. The case led many Texans to call for tougher hate-crime legislation in the state.

Bush Misstates Fate of 1 Killer

In an effort to defend current Texas law, Bush wrongly stated that "the three men who murdered James Byrd . . . are going to be put to death." Only two of the defendants convicted of Byrd's murder were sentenced to death; the third was sentenced to life in prison.

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