Final debate sharpens contrasts

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Candidates take questions from town-hall audience

By Carl P. Leubsdorf / The Dallas Morning News

ST. LOUIS –Al Gore and George W. Bush displayed sharp differences in their approaches to major issues Tuesday night in a lively and pointed final televised debate just three weeks before the election.

Mr. Gore, repeatedly stressing their disagreements on health care and education, said that Mr. Bush would return the nation to the slow growth and big-deficit policies in place when the current administration took office eight years ago.

Mr. Bush, contending that the vice president's proposals would lead to a bigger federal government, stressed that his record as governor of Texas showed he would bring a less-partisan atmosphere to the nation's capital.

Trailing narrowly in most polls in the tightest presidential race in a generation, Mr. Gore sought from the outset to show how his proposals would help more people than the programs being advocated by his Republican opponent.

"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," the vice president said.

Mr. Bush countered by disagreeing on the best way to approach those issues and citing the success he has had in Texas by gaining bipartisan support for his programs.

"It requires a different style of leadership to do it," the governor said. "You see, in order to get something done on behalf of the people, you have to put partisanship aside."

Mr. Gore was clearly more aggressive than he was in the second debate, warning that the proposals made by his opponent would take the nation back "to the kinds of policies we had" that led to record deficits.

Mr. Bush was more the counterpuncher, accusing Mr. Gore of "high school debating tricks" and arguing that he offered a new tone that would end partisanship.

"We've had enough fighting," he said at one point. "It's time to unite."

The candidates met in a form of town-hall meeting. The two men, perched on stools, answered questions submitted by an audience of uncommitted voters. Often, they walked straight to the edge of the stage to make their points directly to the questioners.

Though the rules were supposed to preclude direct questions to each other, Mr. Gore sought to put questions about their differences directly to Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush often answered, but at one point said, "Evidently, the rules don't mean anything."

The direct clashes started almost from the first question, which sought the vice president's view on whether health maintenance organizations and insurance companies, rather than medical professionals, should make critical decisions on health issues.

The vice president called for an enactment of a federal patients' bill of rights to reform the managed health-care system and a plan to include prescription drug coverage under Medicare. He asked Mr. Bush whether he favored a bill backed by GOP leaders and endorsed by HMOs and insurance companies.

Mr. Bush sidestepped the specific question and said: "The difference is I can get it done. That's what the question in this campaign is all about. It's not only what your philosophy and what is your position on issues, but can you get things done? And I believe I can."

Similar clashes erupted at several points in the debate. When Mr. Bush reiterated his accusation that Mr. Gore is advocating an even greater increase in federal education spending than President Clinton, Mr. Gore vigorously dissented.

"He's wrong," the vice president said. "Just add up all the numbers." He noted that journalistic critics had "knocked down" such an assertion in a Bush ad.

"Forget the journalists," Mr. Bush responded. "We just have a different philosophy."

The GOP nominee said that "there wouldn't be enough money" to fund all of the proposals Mr. Gore is making. The vice president countered by saying he expected to balance the federal budget annually and reduce the national debt to cut interest costs and eventually eliminate it.

At one point, Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of favoring diversion of some public education money into vouchers that would enable students to attend private schools. Mr. Bush responded that he would leave that up to the states.

"I don't like it when the federal government tells us what to do," he said. He said the funds in question would go to parents of students so they wouldn't have to send their children to "failing schools."

But Mr. Gore replied that "the program that he's proposing is not the one that he just described. Under your plan, Governor Bush, states would be required to pay vouchers to students, to match the vouchers that the federal government would put up."

And Mr. Gore said that, in the case of failing schools, he would give states "authority and the resources to shut down that school immediately."

In a question following up on the discussion of the death penalty during last week's debate, the governor was asked whether he was proud that so many executions were being carried out in Texas.

"No, I'm not proud. The death penalty is very serious business,'' Mr. Bush answered. "I take my job seriously.''

And he assured the questioner that he had been convinced that those executed during his six years in office were guilty and had had full access to the courts.

Responding, Mr. Gore said that he also favored the death penalty but that it must be carried out fairly. And both candidates said it was a deterrent to crime.

The uncommitted voters in the audience were selected by the Gallup organization. Moderator Jim Lehrer screened their questions, decided which to use and called on the individuals.

Meanwhile, campaign aides said that Mr. Gore would make a campaign stop Sunday in Dallas, on his way to the Pacific Northwest, to address a gathering of ministers.

The debate took place at the Washington University Field House in a subdued atmosphere after the death late Monday of the state's Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan.

The 90-minute session began with a moment of silence in the governor's memory.

Mr. Carnahan, locked in a close Senate race with Republican incumbent John Ashcroft, was killed along with his son Randy and a top political adviser, Chris Sifford, when their small plane crashed in bad weather just south of St. Louis.

Although the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates decided early Tuesday to proceed, both candidates canceled post-debate rallies. Mr. Gore switched a Kansas City campaign stop scheduled for Wednesday to Des Moines, Iowa.

Bush strategist Karl Rove declared the governor had "a great night" and was surprised at what he called Mr. Gore's aggressive tone.

"He was presidential, he was thoughtful, he was positive, he was forceful," Mr. Rove said of the Texas governor.

Mr. Gore's campaign chairman, William Daley, also said his candidate had a good night, adding that the vice president had intentionally been more aggressive in this debate.

"He wanted to engage with the American people," Mr. Daley said. "He wanted to take it to them."