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THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Candidates' Contrasts in Style, Positions Increasingly Evident

October 18, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

With the clock ticking against him, Al Gore tried to regain the initiative in the presidential race Tuesday night by offering a more aggressive defense of the Clinton administration's record and a more pointed critique of George W. Bush's agenda.

In the most spirited, and yet most relaxed, of the three debates between the two men, Gore and Bush presented not only contrasting agendas but contrasting styles. Gore was relentlessly programmatic, proffering long lists of specific proposals and painstakingly emphasizing his differences with Bush. The Republican, by contrast, calmly emphasized the broad themes--particularly his promises to limit the role of government and to bring bipartisan cooperation to Washington--that he believes are his strongest arguments.

Circling each other on the open stage like prizefighters in the ring, the two men engaged in an extended cycle of rhetorical clinches and jabs. On issues where they appeared to feel defensive--gun control for Gore, reform of health maintenance organizations for Bush--each man sought to hug his opponent, blurring the differences and overstating the actual degree of agreement between them.

Yet on issues where they felt themselves on stronger ground--taxes for Bush, education for Gore--each threw jabs as sharp as any in these three encounters. Even at the risk of repeating some of his off-putting behavior from the first debate, Gore was the most aggressive, repeatedly insisting that significant disagreements separate the two men.

"We have a huge difference between us on this question," Gore declared early on, in what became a common refrain.

Questions Raise Key Domestic Issues

Gore's performance was bound to soothe Democrats who felt his reluctance to appear overbearing in last week's debate had obscured his differences with Bush. Gore seemed to benefit from the town hall-style format: Compared to the sometimes discursive questions offered by moderator Jim Lehrer last week, the voters presented the candidates with precisely the sort of bread-and-butter questions about domestic concerns that Gore considers his hole card.

In that environment, Gore looked much more comfortable than in either of the first two encounters, where the questions were asked by Lehrer. After seeming too hot in the first debate and too cool in the second, Gore appeared to find the right pitch in St. Louis, with a tone that was aggressive--at times the vice president barreled through the elaborate rules that structured the discussion--but was not disrespectful toward his rival. Instant polls by CNN-USA Today-Gallup and CBS found a slight plurality thought Gore won the debate.

Bush was confident and frequently forceful; anyone watching Bush's relaxed manner and Gore's coiled intensity would not be surprised that the latest national polls show the Texan leading. Although Gore seemed eager to maximize every moment, Bush was calm and conversational.

Yet at times Bush made questionable statements that could draw as much critical attention as those that caused Gore such grief after the first debate.

Bush, for instance, flatly declared that Clinton and Gore had failed to deliver on their 1992 promise to cut middle-class taxes. "You were promised a middle-class tax cut in 1992; it didn't happen," Bush insisted. Yet in 1997, Clinton, with Gore's support, signed a balanced budget bill that included a children's tax credit large enough that all but the most affluent families now pay a smaller share of their income in federal income taxes than when Clinton took office, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Bush also misrepresented his own plan on school vouchers. "Vouchers are up to states," Bush said. "If you want to do a voucher program in Missouri, fine. I don't like it when the federal government tells us what to do."

Yet Bush's plan mandates that states provide vouchers to low-income parents whose children attend failing schools. Under Bush's proposal, if a school failed to improve performance of low-income students after three years, states would be required to give parents a voucher funded equally with federal funds and state education money.

The night showed evidence of some clear mid-course corrections for Gore. After barely discussing the administration record in the first two debates, Gore tried to take more credit for the economic gains of the last eight years, as well as positive trends in measures from crime to home ownership.

And he made a much more concerted effort to deflect Bush's charge that his agenda would mean a return to big-spending liberalism. "I see a time when we have smaller, smarter government," Gore said.

For the first time in the debates, Gore stressed the administration's record in shrinking the federal work force and insisted that if elected he would pay off the national debt and shrink federal spending to the smallest share of the economy in 50 years.

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