- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

NEWS ANALYSIS

George W. Bush and Al Gore aggressively traded political body punches in last night's heavyweight debate for the presidency, but neither candidate drew blood or was knocked down.
After 90 minutes of nationally televised debate, political strategists and pollsters declared the match largely a draw.
But Mr. Bush appeared to be more aggressive in key points in the debate, and Mr. Gore appeared to be thrown on the defensive at other points especially when Mr. Bush criticized him for his role in the campaign-finance scandal.
"This is a draw, and anything that is a draw is good for Bush," said pollster John Zogby. "Gore went in prior to this debate with heft. Bush went into this debate with charm. And what emerged from this debate was a Gore with some charm and a Bush with some heft. That heft leveled the playing field."
Mr. Bush showed he was fully in command of his facts, avoided any of the occasional flubs on which the news media has dwelled, and showed he could stand toe-to-toe with Mr. Gore in a debate, despite the vice president's reputation for superior debating skills.
"You'd have to call it a draw, which means that Bush wins it because of the lower expectations for him," said Lyn Nofziger, a former political adviser to President Reagan.
"Both of them made their points, neither made a mistake and George Bush showed he knew his subject as well as Al Gore knew his. That tells people who were worried about Bush's capacity that he is up to the job," Mr. Nofziger said.
And in many of the exchanges, Mr. Bush hit hard at his rival, accusing Mr. Gore of wanting to put "liberal activist judges" on the courts, lecturing him for using "fuzzy math" and "phony numbers about what I want to do" to criticize his tax cuts, and attacking the Clinton-Gore administration for not dealing with problems, such as Medicare and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Whenever Mr. Gore outlined his proposals, Mr. Bush repeatedly hit Mr. Gore for not having dealt with the problems in the eight years of his administration.
"It seems like they can't get anything done," he said.
Mr. Gore spent much of his time attacking Mr. Bush's $1.3 trillion income-tax rate-cut plan, charging that it would benefit the rich and use money that would be better spent by paying down the debt, and by providing prescription-drug benefits for older Americans.
Mr. Bush, who was on the offensive throughout much of the debate, attacked his Democratic opponent as a reckless budget-buster whose big-government spending proposals would endanger the economy and plunge Washington back into deficit spending.
But the emotional high point of the debate was when Mr. Bush raised Mr. Gore's central role in the Clinton administration's campaign-finance scandal and said it was an example of how Mr. Gore had let the country down by not being more ethical.
"The thing that bothers me about the vice president is 'no controlling legal authority,' " Mr. Bush said, referring to Mr. Gore's explanation for raising campaign funds out of the White House despite legal prohibitions against such activity.
"I think people ought to be held responsible for the actions they take in life," Mr. Bush added.
The attack seemed to take Mr. Gore by surprise at first as he groped around for a response, but he chose not to explain his role in the scandal and instead pulled a line out of his convention speech, in which he sought to distance himself from President Clinton's scandal-plagued administration.
"You want to focus on scandals, and I want to focus on problems. I am my own man," he said.
But when Mr. Bush elaborated under questioning about his "disappointment" about Mr. Gore's role in the campaign-finance scandal, Mr. Gore still refused to offer a more forthcoming response.
"You have attacked my character and my credibility, and I am not going to respond in kind," he said.
The exchanges between the two candidates opened up two pivotal issues in the campaign that could help Mr. Bush in the closing weeks of the campaign.
First, it brought the issue of Mr. Gore's character and ethics back into the forefront of the election debate and reminded voters of the vice president's past actions that have sparked several Justice Department investigations into his campaign fund-raising activities.
Until last night, the issue had receded in the campaign and Mr. Gore seemed to have put it to rest. The national news media rarely if ever questioned him about it.
Now, Bush campaign officials believe, Mr. Bush has put the scandal back in the spotlight, forcing the media to notice Mr. Gore's unwillingness to discuss it.
Mr. Gore went into the debate believing that he could portray Mr. Bush's tax cuts and his proposals to create private Social Security investment retirement accounts as dangerous "schemes" that would result in Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts.
But Mr. Bush seemed to defuse the attacks, saying that Mr. Gore opposed ordinary workers getting "a better rate of return" on their payroll taxes than the "paltry 1 or 2 percent they are getting now."
Both men headed into yesterday's nationally televised presidential debate knowing that a major slip-up or tactical mistake could cost him the election.
Still, with polls showing the presidential race in a dead heat, and with an audience of perhaps 60 million tuning in, both men had the chance to persuade a segment of undecided voters.

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