George W. Bush and Al Gore pitted their knowledge about foreign affairs against each other last night a subject that has been invisible in this campaign but avoided any sharp new attacks against each other.
In the second of three nationally televised debates, the two presidential rivals disagreed about the use of U.S. military forces in trouble spots around the world.
Mr. Bush, showing a more detailed understanding of foreign-policy issues than he has in the past, displayed skepticism about what he called “nation-building” exercises in Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere.
He said “we can’t be all things to all people. I’m worried about overcommitting our troops around the world.”
Mr. Gore, who has been a strong supporter of President Clinton’s decision to commit U.S. troops in Haiti, the Balkans and elsewhere in the world, appeared to step back from that position under Mr. Bush’s prodding.
“I don’t disagree about getting our troops out” of Haiti and the Balkans, Mr. Gore said.
Mr. Gore, whose driven, overeager, somewhat condescending demeanor hurt him in the first debate, was noticeably toned down this time, as his advisers had urged him to do. He used fewer statistics, spoke in a more conversational style and dropped the melodramatic sighing that opened him up to widespread criticism.
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, gave a much fuller explanation of his views on foreign policy and seemed more at ease in the less-structured roundtable debate format that played to his strength as the more affable candidate in the election.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore went into last night’s presidential debate with several things to prove.
After being pounded in the news media over the past week for exaggerating and fabricating stories to defend his proposals, Mr. Gore had to show that he could stick to the facts and be scrupulously accurate in his details.
The vice president, widely acknowledged as the more experienced debater of the two rivals, also had to avoid a wide variety of annoying habits that he exhibited in last week’s debate: heavy sighing when Mr. Bush criticized his policies and proposals, talking down to his audience and interrupting the Texas governor’s responses.
As he prepared for last night’s debate, Mr. Gore was told by his advisers and debate coaches to tone down his use of statistics and speak in broader, more human, less technical terms about what he wanted to do for the country.
It was an ironic twist of events for a candidate whose strength has been his mastery of details and his machine-gun delivery of complicated data.
Mr. Bush, who came out of the first debate with a largely positive appraisal of his overall performance, had a much shorter, more academic list of debating points that he had to master.
He needed to more fully explain and better defend his across-the-board plan for cutting taxes and he had to demonstrate a broader understanding of foreign-policy issues.
Mr. Gore sharply attacked Mr. Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan in the last debate, charging that the cost of giving income-tax cuts to the top 1 percent of taxpayers was larger than the cost of Mr. Bush’s spending increases for defense, education and prescription drug benefits.
Mr. Bush did not directly respond to that charge, even though the total cost of his three initiatives $270 billion was significantly more than the $150 billion cost of cutting taxes for the top 1 percent.
His campaign advisers, including his chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, acknowledge that Mr. Bush did not fully explain his tax-cut plan and that he had to offer a stronger and more convincing defense of his plan this time.
At the same time, while Mr. Gore’s strategists were urging him to “tone it down,” Mr. Bush’s advisers were urging him to stay on the offensive throughout the debate and to “stay on message.”
The core of the Bush message in the past week has been that Mr. Gore’s $2.5 trillion spending proposals would represent a massive increase in the size and scope of government not seen since the Great Society spending increases under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
As the Bush campaign has escalated its attacks on Mr. Gore as a liberal big spender, polls are beginning to show that the issue is resonating with a large number of voters, especially independent, swing voters who will decide the election’s outcome.
This week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, which shows Mr. Gore trailing by three points, found that voters “strongly prefer smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services.”
Notably, the poll found that voters believed Mr. Bush would do a better job of “holding down the size of government” by a wide margin of 54 percent to 33 percent.
At the same time, after months of polling that seemed to show little support among voters for major tax cuts, the poll found that voters were now evenly divided between the tax cuts that the two candidates were proposing.
Mr. Bush’s plan would cut all of the income-tax rates and double the $500-per-child tax credit.
Mr. Gore, whose tax cuts would total $500 billion, would offer 29 targeted tax credits aimed specifically at lower- to middle-income taxpayers for such things as college tuition, health care costs and child care.
Both candidates went into last night’s debate with the presidential contest tighter than ever, but Mr. Gore had much more ground to make up because of his missteps in their last debate and because Mr. Bush has recaptured the lead.
Three of the major tracking polls now show Mr. Bush with a slight lead. Only the CNN/USA Today/ Gallup Poll, which had been showing Mr. Bush up by three points, now has the race in a dead heat, 45 percent to 45 percent.
Mr. Bush’s edge in the national polls also appears to be changing the state-by-state equation in the electoral count.
A state-by-state analysis by CNN yesterday showed that Mr. Bush has moved ahead in the Electoral College projection. Their analysis gave Mr. Bush 205 electoral votes to Mr. Gore’s 185 votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Significantly, the CNN analysis moved Pennsylvania, where Mr. Gore has been leading, into the toss-up column, along with Missouri, Michigan and Wisconsin.