- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. George W. Bush warned last night that Al Gore’s tendency to “exaggerate” would erode his credibility with Congress and world leaders a president would work with.

“I think credibility is important,” he said, answering a question posed in the second presidential debate, at Wake Forest University here.

The two men sparred in civil language, almost deferential in manner, often agreeing with the other’s positions, meeting in an atmosphere charged with the drama of entering the homestretch of the campaign, with Mr. Bush having regained the lead in most of the public-opinion polls.

“It’s important for the president to be credible with Congress,” Mr. Bush said, taking a sharper tone near the end of the 90-minute session, which was broadcast on the national television networks.

“It’s important for the president to be credible with foreign nations.”

“I think it’s something people need to consider,” said Mr. Bush, referring to a series of stories told by the vice president that turned out to be not true. “This isn’t something new.”

Mr. Gore, in his turn, pledged not to do it again.

“I got some of the details wrong last week in some of the examples I used, and I’m sorry about that,” said Mr. Gore. “I’m going to try to do better.”

Misstating the facets in those stories, he said, “interfered several times with the point I was trying to make.”

“I can’t promise that I will never get another detail wrong,” he said. “I can promise that I will try not to and hard… . I will work my heart out to get the big things right for the American people.”

Asked by Jim Lehrer, the moderator, whether Mr. Gore’s explanation was sufficient, Mr. Bush replied: “The people will have to decide that.” For his part, he said, he will reserve judgment until he hears what the vice president says in the future.

“We all make mistakes,” he said. “I’ve been known to mangle a syllable or two.” He put the accent on the second syllable.

Mr. Gore’s staff has begun deriding Mr. Bush, calling him a “babbler” and a “bumbler.” Mr. Gore tried to distance himself from such attacks saying, “I don’t use that language and I don’t think we should.”

Other than that exchange, the two men engaged in a civil and matter-of-fact debate last night in their second meeting, heavy on foreign policy. The two disagreed in several key areas, particularly when to commit U.S. troops overseas.

“We can’t be all things to all people in the world,” said Mr. Bush, the Republican nominee. “That’s where the vice president and I begin to have differences. I worry about overcommitting the military.”

Mr. Gore, the Democrat, countered: “Just because we cannot be involved everywhere doesn’t mean we should shy away from going anywhere.”

Mr. Bush, who appeared more comfortable with foreign policy questions than in the first debate, said the United States needs to “be strong with its friends, resolute” yet it should not try to be the world’s policeman.

“It depends on how we conduct ourselves in foreign policy, if we are an arrogant nation, [others] will resent us,” the Texas governor said. “If we are a humble nation, they will welcome us… . That’s why we’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”

The two men disagreed in several other key areas as well, including Mr. Gore’s proposal to require handgun buyers to get a state-issued license.

“The only people who are going to show up are law-abiding citizens,” said Mr. Bush. “Criminals are not going to show up and say ‘hey, give me my ID card.’ I don’t think that’s going to be an effective tool.”

Mr. Gore reiterated his support for licensing, which he proposed in the primary season but has hardly mentioned since. But he insisted he would only require licenses for new handgun buyers.

“The problem I see is that there are too many handguns getting into the hands of children and criminals… . I’m not for anything that’s going to affect hunters, sportsmen, rifles, shotguns, existing handguns.”

The two men also disagreed somewhat on the issue of hate crimes. Mr. Bush said he would support some limited hate-crimes legislation, but does not support a broader law that would give homosexuals “special protection.”

“I support equal rights, not special rights,” he said.

Mr. Gore came out strongly in favor of laws that protect homosexuals, including a bill on Capitol Hill known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prevents employers from firing an employee based on his sexual orientation.

He also said the United States needs to “address questions of injustice and inequality along the lines of race and ethnicity” at home to set an example for foreign nations.

Although Mr. Bush criticized several elements of Clinton-Gore administration policy, he went out of his way to compliment several initiatives, particularly in foreign policy.

Mr. Bush said, for example, that President Clinton “made the right decision” in bombing Serbia.

“I think it’s good public policy,” the governor said. “I think it worked. I’m pleased the president made the decision he made, because freedom took hold in that part of the world,” Mr. Bush said, referring to the recent election of Yugoslavia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica.

Mr. Gore was wary of overstatement following the Oct. 3 debate in Boston, in which misstatements led to a week of questions about his credibility.

“One of the problems that we have faced in the world is that we are so much more powerful than any single nation has been in relationship to rest of the world than at any time in history,” said Mr. Gore.

“That I know about, anyway,” he added hurriedly, an apparent effort to distance himself from his past debate conduct, where he exaggerated or made up details in his remarks.

Mr. Gore avoided the sort of eye-rolling and sighing that characterized his first debate performance, behavior that appeared to irritate viewers. He couched many of his responses with self-effacing language.

“I don’t know about all of these percentages he’s throwing out,” Mr. Gore said at one point, in a role reversal from the Oct. 3 debate in Boston. “I’m no expert” on health care in Texas, Mr. Gore said at another point.

Mr. Gore did aggressively attack Mr. Bush’s record in Texas. He also repeated his charge that the bulk of Mr. Bush’s $1.3 trillion, 10-year income-tax cut would go to the wealthiest Americans.

Mr. Bush said the top 1 percent of wage earners now pay 33 percent of taxes. He said they would get 20 percent of the benefits under his tax cut.

Mr. Gore said Texas ranks 49th in terms of children covered by health care. He said the state has been slow to implement a federally sponsored program to offer health insurance to children.

Mr. Bush bristled at the attack, saying he was working hard to reduce the number of uninsured.

“If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong,” he said.

“It is not a statement about his heart I don’t know his heart,” Mr. Gore quickly responded. “I think he’s a good person … but I think it is about his priorities.”

The two men met at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in the second of three debates scheduled for this year. They met a week ago in Boston and will debate again next week in St. Louis.

Unlike last week’s debate, when the men dressed in identical dark suits and red ties, the two men looked slightly different this week Mr. Bush in a dark suit and red tie and Mr. Gore in a dark suit and blue tie.

This is the first time a presidential debate has been conducted around a table in this conversational style. The vice-presidential debate last week in Kentucky used a similar format and both sides appeared pleased by the format.

Mr. Bush has pushed for this style of debate, which he experienced during the Republican primary debates earlier this year. He and his staff believe he is more at ease in the roundtable format than standing behind a rostrum, as with most debates.

While some students and members of the public attended, the chapel was packed with officials, including members of Congress and retired Gen. Colin Powell. One former president Jimmy Carter attended the debate.

This is the first time a presidential debate has been conducted around a table in this conversational style. The vice-presidential debate last week in Kentucky used a similar format and both sides appeared pleased by the format.

Mr. Bush has pushed for this style of debate, which he experienced during the Republican primary debates earlier this year. He and his staff believe he is more at ease in the roundtable format than standing behind a rostrum, as with most debates.

Mr. Bush’s staff arrived in North Carolina on Tuesday on a clear high. They were pleased by the candidate’s performance in the first debate, where he managed to avoid his characteristic malapropisms and remained unruffled by Mr. Gore’s famously aggressive techniques for rattling opponents.

They are also buoyed by recent polls that show Mr. Bush has pulled ahead of Mr. Gore, who enjoyed a 17-point lead after the Democratic convention in August. Mr. Gore led throughout September, but within days of the first debate the polls shifted dramatically toward Mr. Bush.

The latest round of polls, released yesterday, showed Mr. Bush with a slight lead. The Reuters/ MSNBC/Zogby tracking poll gave Mr. Bush a razor-thin lead, 43 percent to 42 percent, while results in the Voter.com Battleground 2000 tracking poll gave Mr. Bush a small lead, 43 percent to 41 percent.

The most optimistic poll for Mr. Gore was the CNN/USA Today/ Gallup Poll, which showed the two men tied at 45 percent each.

In preparation for last night’s debate, Mr. Bush spent a long weekend in Austin working on his foreign policy answers, particularly the situations in the Middle East and Serbia, which have dominated recent headlines, staff said. One of his practice sessions in Texas was devoted almost entirely to foreign policy.

On the Gore side, spokesman Chris Lehane sought to raise expectations for Mr. Bush before the second debate.

“In the last one, the bar for the governor was basically at his ankles,” Mr. Lehane said at Wake Forest hours before the debate.

“It’s like the Olympics. Once you qualify, you have to medal. People are going to be holding the governor to a presidential standard.”

Mr. Gore began the day in Sarasota, Fla., where he spent the last three days practicing for tonight’s debate. The vice president ran on a treadmill, then sat with his daughter, Karenna, on the deck at his hotel room, looking out over the Gulf of Mexico.

The candidates face off in their third and final debate on Tuesday at Washington University in St. Louis. That debate will be a town-hall forum.

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