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Gore-Bush Debate: Feisty From the Start

Politics: Candidates clash in last face-off over issues ranging from health care to the role, size of government.


ST. LOUIS — Standing face-to-face for their final meeting, George W. Bush and Al Gore clashed repeatedly Tuesday night over the proper size and role of the federal government, offering starkly different views of the successes and failings of the last eight years.

In a feisty debate that was contentious from the start, Democrat Gore and Republican Bush differed over health care, school vouchers, tax cuts, military spending, affirmative action and numerous other issues in a series of freewheeling exchanges.

"I don't like it when the federal government tells us what to do," Texas Gov. Bush said in one exchange, dealing with education, that crystallized their opposing views.

"It's not enough to leave it up to the local school districts," Gore said. "They're not able to do it. Our future depends on it."

A wrangle over the candidates' respective tax cuts led to one of their sharpest disputes: the record of the last eight years under the Clinton-Gore administration.

The two started by reprising familiar arguments. Bush maintained that everyone who pays taxes deserves relief and will get it under his $1.3-trillion proposal. Gore countered that his $500-billion tax cut would be more fiscally responsible by leaving money for other programs, such as education and health care, as well as for paying down the national debt.

"If you want somebody who believes that we were better off eight years ago then we are now and that we ought to go back to the kind of policies that we had back then, emphasizing tax cuts mainly for the wealthy, here is your man," Gore said, his arm extended toward Bush. "If you want somebody who will fight for you and who will fight for middle-class tax cuts, then I am your man."

Bush vigorously disagreed. "You talk about eight years. They haven't gotten anything done on Medicare, Social Security, patients' bill of rights. It's time to get something done."

The debate opened somberly, with a tribute to the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash Monday night. But after a brief moment of silence, Bush and Gore faced off on the very first question, dealing with HMO reform.

Gore embraced federal legislation that would let consumers sue HMOs for inadequate health care. Bush countered by saying he too supports such legislation. But Gore pointed out differences between the bill he backs and the less sweeping GOP measure Bush supports.

Bush replied by citing his work on patient-protection legislation in Texas, saying his bipartisan approach there reflects the way he would work in Washington. It was an argument he made throughout the evening.

"I do support a national patients' bills of rights," Bush said. " . . . It requires a different kind of leadership style to do it, though. You see, in order to get something done on behalf of the people, you have to put partisanship aside, and that's what we did in my state."

Gore, for his part, cast himself as a protector against the likes of the big pharmaceutical companies and Bush as a champion of the privileged.

"Here we go again," the vice president tartly replied. "If you want someone who will spend a lot of words describing a whole convoluted process and then end up supporting legislation that is supported by the big drug companies, this is your man."

On another health care issue, the two disagreed when Gore called for moving "step by step toward universal health coverage," starting with children. "I do not think that the government should do all of it," the vice president said.

But Bush responded, "I'm absolutely opposed to a national health care plan. I don't want the federal government making decisions for consumers or for providers."

The two men entered the evening running essentially neck-and-neck in opinion polls as well as the crucial state-by-state electoral college. But the greater pressure to perform was on Gore, showing how much the race had shifted in the two weeks since the two nominees' first meeting in Boston.

Going into the debates, which Bush initially resisted, the vice president was considered by far the more tested and knowledgeable performer. He also enjoyed an advantage in most national polls as well as the electoral college count.

But after striking many as too pushy in the first debate and too passive in last week's, Gore lost ground to Bush and revived doubts about his character and personality, which the vice president had seemed to bury with his well-received acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Bush, in contrast, exceeded most expectations with his even performance, particularly in the second debate, and the Texas governor sought Tuesday night merely to avoid any serious mistakes that might underline questions about his readiness for the White House.

The format was one that Gore preferred, a mock town hall session in which an audience of nominally undecided voters submitted questions to moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS, who then pitched them to the candidates, along with some queries of his own.

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