- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

BOSTON Al Gore and George W. Bush last night clashed on abortion, character and the size of government as the candidates, locked in an extraordinarily close race, finally squared off just five weeks before the presidential election.
Sparks flew as the Texas governor aggressively accused the vice president of using "phony numbers" and frightening seniors with "Mediscare."
Mr. Gore sighed, laughed and rolled his eyes as he warned that Mr. Bush would overturn Roe vs. Wade and spoil the environment drilling for oil.
Late in the 90-minute debate, Mr. Bush questioned Mr. Gore's character by invoking the vice president's campaign fund-raising tactics, including a 1996 Buddhist temple fund-raiser. He suggested Mr. Gore had moved President Truman's sign declaring "The Buck Stops Here" from the Oval Office to the Lincoln Bedroom, referring to Clinton-Gore donors' overnight stays in the famous chamber.
"I think the thing that disturbs me about the vice president was uttering the famous words, 'no controlling legal authority,' " Mr. Bush said, referring to the vice president's defense for making fund-raising calls from his office. "I feel like there needs to be a better sense of responsibility."
He added: "Going to a Buddhist temple and claiming it wasn't a fund-raiser isn't my view of responsibility."
Mr. Gore responded: "I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other. You may want to focus on scandal. I want to focus on results."
When moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS tried to explore the issue further, Mr. Gore changed the subject by challenging Mr. Bush to endorse the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, which would ban soft money. Mr. Bush declined.
"This man has no credibility on the issue," the Texas governor said.
Rather than challenge the facts of the campaign finance scandal, Mr. Gore implied the worst excesses were committed by his boss, President Clinton. He repeatedly tried to distance himself from the only elected president to have been impeached.
"I stand here as my own man, and I want you to see me for who I really am," the vice president said. "You have attacked my character and credibility, and I am not going to respond in kind."
Not wishing to be seen as a strident attack dog, Mr. Gore returned again and again to warnings about "tax cuts for the wealthy." In contrast, Mr. Bush seemed feisty and at times combative, eager to score points by criticizing Mr. Gore.
One major theme of the debate was the size of government.
"I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut, and that stands in contrast to my worthy opponent's plan, which will increase the size of government dramatically," Mr. Bush said.
"His plan is three times larger than President Clinton's proposed plan eight years ago. It's a plan that will have 200 new programs, or expanded programs. It'll create 20,000 new bureaucrats. In other words, it empowers Washington."
Mr. Bush repeatedly accused the vice president of using "fuzzy math" and "phony numbers."
"This is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator."
It was a pointed reference to Mr. Gore's claim to have played an exaggerated role in the development of the Internet.
Mr. Gore insisted that Mr. Bush is the one taking liberties with budget figures.
"The governor used the phrase phony numbers, but if you look at the plan and add the numbers up, these numbers are correct," Mr. Gore said. "He spends more money for tax cuts for the wealthy 1 percent than all of his new spending proposals for health care, prescription drugs, national defense all combined."
"The surplus is the American people's money," he added. "It's your money. That's why I don't think we should give half of it to the wealthiest 1 percent."
On abortion, Mr. Bush said he would not administer a pro-life litmus test to Supreme Court nominees.
"I don't believe in liberal, activist judges," he said. "I believe in strict constructionists, and those are the kind of judges I will appoint." But Mr. Bush did say he would work to end partial-birth abortion.
Mr. Gore also said he would not employ an abortion litmus test, but predicted his appointees would uphold the Roe vs. Wade decision. He also warned that Mr. Bush admires two of the most pro-life justices, Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
"When the phrase 'strict constructionist' is used, and when the names of Scalia and Thomas are used as benchmarks for who would be appointed, those are code words and nobody should mistake this for saying that the governor would appoint people who would overturn Roe v. Wade."
Mr. Bush said he would not force the Food and Drug Administration to overturn its recent decision legalizing RU-486, the French abortion pill. Mr. Gore suggested that Mr. Bush was backtracking from an assertion last week that he would intervene in the case.
The vice president also said abortion is one of the biggest issues at stake in this campaign.
"A lot of young women in this country take this right for granted and it could be lost," Mr. Gore said. "It is on the ballot in this election, make no mistake about it."
In a bid to cast himself as a populist, the vice president bragged of standing up "to powerful interests like the big insurance companies, the drug companies, the HMOs, the oil companies."
Mr. Bush countered: "I've been standing up to Hollywood [and] big trial lawyers." He was referring to two industries that have been among the staunchest supporters of Mr. Gore.
Seeking to defuse the question of his governmental experience, Mr. Bush said: "Look, I fully recognize I'm not of Washington. I'm from Texas. And he's got a lot of experience and so do I."
Mr. Bush also tried to neutralize one of the vice president's key health care issues.
"Eight years ago, they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors. And four years ago, they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors. And now they're campaigning on getting prescription drugs for seniors. It seems like they can't get it done," Mr. Bush said.
The 90-minute debate was expected to draw by far the largest audience of the campaign to date more than 75 million viewers.
Each candidate had two minutes to respond, followed by a minute of rebuttal and wrapped up by a 3 and 1/2-minute exchange between themselves. Closing statements were limited to two minutes.
The audience of 900 included Mr. Bush's wife, Laura; brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and sister, Doro, but not his parents. Gore family members in attendance included the vice president's wife, Tipper; daughter, Karenna; and brother-in-law, Frank Hunger.
The presidential candidates will debate again on Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. All three are sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

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