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Bush, Gore stalk stage and each other in final debate

ST LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- Speculation that the final debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush would be somber and restrained before a mourning Missouri and an expectant nation crumbled within moments of their pre-debate handshake Tuesday night, as both tried to turn audience questions into nails sharp enough to halt any of their foe's forward movement.

With the sting of the tragic death of state Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan dominating thoughts of most of the small group who participated directly in Tuesday night's contest, Bush and Gore took the stage here at Washington University and set into a complex game dominated not only by their answers to audience questions, but by their body language and aggressive claims to portions of their round stage.

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Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush debate in Missouri: Part 1

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CNN's Brooks Jackson helps clear up some of the points that were covered in the debate (October 18)

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Gore and Cheney are interviewed after the Bush-Gore debate (October 18)

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Q: Would you be open to the idea of a national health care plan?

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Q: What would make you the best person in office during the Middle East crisis?

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Carnahan, his son and a close advisor were killed when their small plane crashed Monday night. The governor had been engaged in a fierce battle to unseat Missouri Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, and the shock of his death had led to early predictions that the debate would be canceled or postponed -- and if it did go on, that it would be somewhat more anticlimactic than both campaigns had initially anticipated.

But Gore attacked Bush early, ramping up the severity of his verbal assaults as the night progressed, first by slamming Bush on health care from a variety of angles, then by attempting to sustain the effect of his assaults by stepping away from his chair toward Bush's section of the stage as Bush spoke.

Bush, hoping to show Gore and the seated audience that he was unfazed by the vice president's movements across the stage, smiled, appeared to relax his frame as he balanced himself against his chair, and met many of Gore's attacks with the occasional snort, chuckle and his trademark smirk.

The aftermath left observant, undecided voters -- whose ranks will clearly decide what is the closest presidential election in four decades -- with a host of factors to consider aside from Bush and Gore's verbal responses to a variety social and international policy queries.

Domination of the sparring area, according to some Gore advisors, could be compared to how a president has to conduct himself in negotiations with a strong partisan or international foe.

"They weren't tactics," said Gore Campaign Chairman Bill Daley, "What it was, was somebody showing they could be in command of an evening, and therefore be commander-in-chief."

Bush's people read the night's events differently. They saw Gore ranging across the stage, seeking to block out the governor as he spoke. The vice president's attempts to curtail Bush's personal space, Bush strategist Karl Rove said, were transparent and "juvenile."

"He tried to psyche the governor out," Rove said. "And it didn't work."

Audience of 'regular folk' bring up mostly middle-class concerns

The evening's 90 minutes consisted of a series of questions presented by St. Louis-area residents vetted by the Gallup organization, and determined to be "undecided" voters.

Their questions were often expanded upon by the debate moderator, PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, who attempted to maintain control of the evening's pace even while Bush and Gore asked for extra time to respond to their opponents' previous assertions. Once audience members had asked their questions, their microphones were turned off.

Health care -- specifically Medicare and a so-called patients' bill of rights -- dominated much of the discussion, as did broader issues of health insurance coverage for uninsured children and families. Gore, following up on a method he employed to some success last week in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, consistently tried to turn Bush's pronouncements against him by citing his record as the governor of Texas.

Gore
Vice President Al Gore  

And Bush replied that he was the one person on tonight's stage capable of getting anything accomplished on the issues over which they argued.

"The difference is I can get it done," Bush said directly to Gore as the two sparred over the possibility of a federal patients' bill of rights. "I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That's what the question in this campaign is about."

Gore had pushed Bush, in violation of the debate's rules barring the candidates from questioning each other, to declare if he would or would not support the bipartisan patients' bill of rights that now languishes in Congress -- the so-called Dingell-Norwood bill.

That bill, which is opposed by the Republican majority in the Senate who favor a less comprehensive measure, would allow medical patients to sue their health maintenance organization or insurance company in the event a coverage decision caused direct, documentable harm. The bill would also block insurance companies from dictating treatment options to doctors, and would allow patients direct access to specialists, without need for insurance company approval.

While Bush argued that he had, in fact, worked to pass a patient's bill of rights in Texas -- which he would use as a model for a national version should be become president -- he insisted he would not allow the federal government to become too involved in the distribution of health care, and the provision of health insurance. Gore leapt at him, accusing him of doing the bidding of insurance companies, "big drug companies" and other special interests.

That characterization, Gore argued, carried over into almost all of the governor's other social policy planks -- including his proposals to overhaul the 35-year-old Medicare system and provide prescription drug coverage to seniors by encouraging the participation of private insurers with the enticement of federal subsidies.

"Now look, if you want someone who will spend a lot of words describing a whole convoluted process and then end up supporting legislation that is supported by the big drug companies, this is your man," Gore said, taking long strides across the stage and gesturing gingerly toward Bush.

"If you want someone who will fight for you and who will fight for the middle-class families and working men and women who are sick and tired of having their parents and grandparents pay higher prices for prescription drugs than anybody else, then I want to fight for you," he said.

The verbal slaps grew sharper as the debate broadened.

On the wider issue of universal health care, Gore said he hoped that some time in the near future, universal health care could be enacted in the United States, but he did not wish for the government to be the only participant.

Bush, Gore added, has presided over a state whose low rolls of the insured warranted serious scrutiny.

"Under Governor Bush, Texas has sunk to be 50th out of 50 in health care -- in health insurance for their citizens."

Bush then tied Gore to the Clinton administration's failed 1993 universal health access plan.

"The question is are people getting health care and do we have a strong safety net? Bush asked. "There needs to be a safety net in America. There needs to be more community health clinics where the poor can go get health care."

"We need a program for the uninsured," he said.

Bush bites back

The governor took an opportunity to sink his teeth into Gore as the two addressed planned tax cuts and projected federal spending over the course of the next decade.

Bush assailed Gore as a "big spending" Democrat, resurrecting an argument used to great affect by Republican candidates for high office through much of the last two decades. Gore, Bush said somewhat respectfully, was advocating an explosion in the size of the federal government, and a significant boost in government spending.

Bush
Gov. George W. Bush  

He should be proud of it, Bush said.

"When you total up all the federal spending he wants to do, it's the largest increase in federal spending in years," Bush argued. "And there's just not going to be enough money."

"This is a big spender," Bush said, dismissing Gore's citing of articles by "journalists" that break down the governor's tax proposals. "Forget the journalists."

"He ought to be proud of this part of his record. It's a different philosophy," Bush said. "I think if you're going to have tax relief, everybody ought to benefit."

Bush ended his response with a conspicuous wink that strategist Rove said was directed at his wife Laura, seated just feet away.

Gore responded that Bush's pledge to provide "the top 1 percent" of the population with tax relief, coupled with his proposal to allow young workers to invest portions of their Social Security payroll taxes, would wreak havoc upon the nation's projected $4.5 trillion, 10-year surplus.

"Gov. Bush, this is not about me, this is about you," Gore said. "If you want somebody who believes we were better off eight years ago, then he is your man," Gore then said, turning toward the seated audience. "If you want middle class tax reform, then I am your man. I want to be."

"Instead of ballooning the debt and multiplying it four times over we've seen it go down, (in the past eight years)," Gore said.

"Here are some promises I will make to you now. I'll balance the budget every year. I will pay down the debt every year. I will give middle-class Americans tax cuts, meaningful ones. And I will invest in education, health care, protecting the environment and retirement security."

The tense exchange lasted the full length of this last debate with little letup. Bush on occasion stumbled on his answers, but maintained a firmly confident and conversational demeanor that he often employed as a bail-out tool.

One such awkward moment came as the two were questioned on the effectiveness of affirmative action, with Bush responding that while he believed he had presided over one of the most diverse administrations in the history of the Lone Star state, he did not believe in quotas.

"That's not what America is about," he said before he turned a new phrase -- "affirmative access."

Affirmative access, he explained, allowed minority kids who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes to benefit from college assistance.

"I don't know what affirmative access means," Gore said. "I do know what affirmative action means. I know the governor is against it and I know that I'm for it."

Again, bending the debate rules, Gore chided Bush into defending his position by describing affirmative access as a "red herring." Lehrer exerted further pressure on Bush, and asked him to state equivocally whether he supported affirmative action, or not.

"If affirmative action means quotas I'm against it," Bush responded. "If it means what I'm for, then I'm for it. You heard what I was for. He keeps saying I'm against things."

Endgame

By dawn Wednesday, there will only be 20 days before the general election. Advisors to both Bush and Gore said late Tuesday night that their debate performances have likely sealed their fates.

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Predictably, campaign operatives from both sides proclaimed their candidate victorious.

"This debate will produce a small (positive polling) change for Bush," Rove said. "That change won't matter too much, because most of the change we needed occurred with the end of the first two debates. And that doesn't bother me a bit."

Gore advisor Tad Devine gave the vice president a win in the physical stature department, key to tonight's "town hall" format. "Bush wandered and waffled and defended the wealthy," Devine said. "He didn't benefit from his own body language."

 
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WHAT'S AT STAKE

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Watch selected policy speeches and campaign commercials from the major presidential candidates.

WHERE THEY STAND
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THE STATES
Who are your elected officials? What is the past presidential vote and number of electoral votes in your state? What are the presidential primary results and exit polls? Find out with these state political and election facts.

ELECTION GUIDE
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FOLLOW THE MONEY
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RACES
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Allpolitics.com is a partner in the Web White and Blue rolling cyber-debate, a daily online exchange among the major presidential candidates. Look for twice-daily updates Sunday through Friday until election day.


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Wednesday, October 18, 2000


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