- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000


Vice President Al Gore aggressively tried to regain the offensive in last night's debate, but each time Texas Gov. George W. Bush calmly disarmed him with an attack of his own accusing him of being a partisan and big spender who was part of the problem in Washington, not part of the solution.

When the smoke had cleared from the last of their three debates, there had been no campaign-defining moments or anything else to help Mr. Gore shift the momentum away from Mr. Bush, who had scratched out a slight lead since the first debate.

Debating each other for the last time in the more relaxed setting of a town-hall meeting with undecided voters asking the questions, Mr. Bush portrayed Mr. Gore as a partisan who was part of the "bickering in Washington" who had failed to get anything done in eight years and who was a big spender who would "grow the government."

Appearing confident and at ease, his voice modulated and calm, Mr. Bush said he would bring Democrats and Republicans together on difficult issues such as medical care.

"I can get something done," he said.

Mr. Gore, who suffered setbacks in the polls in the first two debates, was much more assertive than he was in last week's debate, constantly attacking Mr. Bush on his tax cuts and health care and on other issues. But he also appeared more excitable during the give and take and began interrupting Mr. Bush during his responses something he was criticized for doing in the first debate.

He pointed to Mr. Bush, saying, "All right, here we go again," labeling his health care proposals "a big-drug-companies bill."

The vice president went on the attack as soon as he got off his stool, hitting Mr. Bush on his health care plans and attacking his school-voucher proposal as a dangerous move that would undermine public education.

Mr. Bush struck back by charging that Mr. Gore's $2.5 trillion spending plans were the largest in decades, and warned that his aid to education plan would result in "federalizing education."

With all of the major national tracking polls showing Mr. Bush with an edge in the polls with just three weeks to go before Election Day, it is now clear that Mr. Bush has benefited from the debates more than Mr. Gore has even though the vice president was considered to be the superior debater.

Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Bush adviser, said the governor had scored a clear victory.

"I never thought Albert Gore could lose three debates in a row. But tonight, Bush not only got the better of Gore but it was the best Bush has been yet," Mr. Barbour said.

"Bush deflected Gore's attacks and always returned to what he, Bush, was for and you could tell that Gore was getting frustrated," he said.

Even though Democrats praised Mr. Gore's performance, some said the vice president did not do enough to reverse his recent slippage in opinion polls.

"I think this is Gore's best performance of the debates, but I don't think there was a winner. I think the undecided will continue to be undecided," said Curtis Gans, president of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"Both of them scored points. Bush did a little better when he was showing up Gore when he was unresponsive," Mr. Gans said.

In demeanor, Mr. Bush seemed to convey a cool, confident attitude who kept to his battle plan to attack Mr. Gore as a liberal big spender and to raise the credibility and character issue. Washington, he said, "needs somebody who will tell the truth."

As if to emphasize the point, the Texas governor in his closing statement looked into the camera and repeated a statement that he uses in his standard stump speech an indirect reference to the Clinton-Gore administration scandals.

When he takes the oath of office, Mr. Bush said, he would also swear "to not only uphold the laws of the land, but I will also swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God."

Mr. Gore had to overcome the damage he had done to himself in the first debate, when he made several statements that proved to be untrue or were embellished.

Democrats said he had to be more assertive than he was in the second debate, when he so toned down his usually intense delivery that supporters complained he had looked passive and weak.

"He has to be more assertive but he can't look too aggressive," Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh advised him just before the debate.

But that advice, widely shared by other Democratic advisers, had put Mr. Gore in a tactical box: fearing that he would look too mean and negative if he resorted to his usual bare-knuckled debating style, but knowing he had to light a fire under his candidacy if he is to regain the offensive.

In the end, after falling behind in late August and through September, Mr. Bush's performances in the debates may have turned out to be the election's "October surprise."

Pollsters and campaign advisers agree that Mr. Bush's debate performances have been the key factor in his comeback in the polls and in his growing lead in enough states to put him ahead of Mr. Gore in the Electoral College projections.

Again and again, Mr. Gore pointed to proposals in Washington that Mr. Bush did not support from a Democratic patients' bill of rights to hate-crime laws to gun control in an attempt to get back on offense.

But each time Mr. Bush dismissed the criticism, saying that Mr. Gore's plans were based on the belief that Washington could solve every problem by spending a lot more money, some of which he wants to return to the people in the form of tax cuts for everyone.

"I'm not going to grow the federal government the way he will," he shot back.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore was running into trouble in California, where Democratic officials said he was in danger of losing the state if he did not begin to run TV ads in a state where 54 electoral votes are at stake.

"We're at a critical juncture here where there has to be some serious recalibrations with what we're doing, or we could be in trouble," said Garry South, Mr. Gore's chief strategist in the state.

A loss in California would mean the end of the Gore campaign because so much of Mr. Gore's electoral strength is tied up there. The latest Zogby poll found that Mr. Bush was running just six points behind Mr. Gore there.

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