Gore, Bush slip and slide on a few facts

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

By Wayne Slater and Todd J. Gillman / The Dallas Morning News

After a pair of debates in which the candidates were tagged for miscues, exaggerations and fuzzy math, Al Gore and George W. Bush hewed a more careful course Tuesday but still skirted the edges in their final presidential faceoff.

The vice president said his education plan would require the testing of all students, when in fact his proposal would use a national exam in which only some students in scattered school districts are tested. And he asserted that the drug industry spends more to market its products than to develop them, a statement contradicted by some research.

Mr. Bush took credit for a state law allowing people to sue their HMOs, even though he initially opposed the measure and eventually let it become law without his signature. And the governor accused his Democratic rival of proposing three times more in new spending than President Clinton. But to reach that figure, Mr. Bush was counting some tax cuts as spending increases.

"You're up there speaking live in front of millions of people, and I think it's reasonable to think that in the course of 90 minutes you're going to misstate a fact or two," said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the book Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.

As the debate unfolded, the campaigns issued flurries of e-mail accusing each other of being on slippery factual turf, though the differences expressed in the town hall-style debate most often fell into the category of competing philosophy.

Early in the debate, for instance, Mr. Bush said he brought Republicans and Democrats together to sign a patients' bill of rights. "We are one of the first states that said you can sue an HMO for denying you proper coverage," Mr. Bush said.

The implication, critics said, was that the governor took a role in passing that law, or at least supported it. In fact, he vetoed a 1995 bill to let patients sue HMOs. Two years later, he threatened to veto a similar measure but, faced with a likely override vote, let it become law without his signature.

At one point, Mr. Gore said Texas ranked dead last in the country for the uninsured. But in the 1999 rankings, Texas actually moved up a notch, ahead of New Mexico, where 25.6 percent of residents lacked health insurance. Texas had 23.3 percent, down from 24.5 percent a year earlier. The Gore campaign issued a late-night explanation, saying Mr. Gore was using a three-year average favored by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mr. Gore said that drug makers "are now spending more money on advertising and promotion ... than they are on research and development." In June, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the industry spent about $21 billion on research and development and between $5.8 billion and $8.3 billion on promotion. The Gore campaign cited other studies to support the vice president's assertion.

On his policies, Mr. Bush proclaimed that prescription drug coverage should be "an integral part of Medicare." His own plan, however, encourages private-sector choices outside the Medicare system.

Mr. Gore implied that he would help the parents of college students more than his plan actually would. "I want to give every middle-class family a $10,000-a-year tax deduction for college tuition," he said. But that particular tax credit is already in place; what he didn't mention was that he is proposing a new benefit worth only $800.

Late in the debate, Mr. Bush pointed out former Democratic state Rep. Hugo Berlanga in the audience and referred to him as the "chairman of the health committee," saying he'd come to attest to the governor's record on health issues. In fact, Mr. Berlanga, who formerly chaired the House Public Health Committee, has left the Texas House and is now a lobbyist for hospitals and medical interests.

In responding to a question about his support of diversity, Mr. Bush said he has made his administration "look like Texas." But his nearly 4,000 appointments haven't matched the state's demographics. About 13 percent of the appointments have gone to Hispanics, who account for 30 percent of the population. An additional 9 percent have gone to blacks, who make up 12 percent of Texans.

Some errors can be attributed to rounding or a casual approach to precision. For instance, Mr. Gore put the number of uninsured nationally at 44 million; the number is closer to 42.7 million. And Mr. Bush said that "the number of uninsured have now gone up for the past seven years." In fact, the number dropped in 1999 for the first year since the Census Bureau began collecting data in 1987, although it remains higher than it was in 1993.

Experts caution against using any single event to assess a candidate's honesty, pointing out that candidate Bill Clinton committed no egregious errors in his debates and ended up being impeached for perjury.

Debates, Mr. Schroeder said, "shouldn't be the only mechanism that people use to evaluate a candidate's truthfulness."

Staff writer Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.