Audience drills Bush, Gore on issues during final debate

by George Fairbanks

With the number of swing voters shrinking, both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush saw Tuesday night’s debate in St. Louis as vitally important.
In the wake of the second debate, Bush garnered a minor lead, although the edge is still within the polls’ margins of error.
The death Monday night of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in a plane crash cast a dark cloud over the debate. Both men honored Carnahan in their opening remarks. Although some thought the tragedy might hinder the exchanges between the two men, it didn’t seem to curb their enthusiasm or attacks.
Like the earlier debates, PBS’ “The News Hour” anchor Jim Lehrer moderated the proceedings. In contrast to previous debates, this third and final exchange on the campus of Washington University allowed the audience to ask the candidates questions. Audience members consisted of St. Louis area voters who were still undecided coming into the debate.
The questions presented by the audience centered around many issues that had already been discussed. However, questioners attempted to press both Bush and Gore on issue specifics.
Throughout the first half of the debate, Gore, the Democratic nominee, made a concerted effort to separate himself from his Republican counterpart, Bush.
The bulk of Gore’s energy was spent specifically contrasting his proposals and stances against Bush’s.
“If you want someone who will fight for you … I will fight for you,” Gore said.
The strategy seemed to press Bush back onto his heels as he was left trying to counter his opponent.
As expected, the focus of the debate shifted toward foreign policy. The terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, as well as the outbreak of violence in the Middle East, weighed heavily on the minds of the two candidates and the audience.
But the debate didn’t retain as much focus on foreign affairs as many pundits predicted it would in the days and hours leading up to the contest.
“In order to get something done for the people, you have to put partisanship aside,” Bush said.
The audience kept Bush and Gore on their toes with a varied series of questions. Both men wandered around the stage, seeking close proximity to the audience. That was a large contrast to the previous two debates in which the men were stationary behind podiums and a desk.
The candidates were asked to address voter apathy. More specifically, they talked about the apathy of college-age voters who many predict will vote in all-time low numbers.
Gore spoke of “shooting straight” with voters. He detailed his opinion that campaign finance reform is a major issue. Gore suggested that gains on this issue will energize the electorate.
Bush also stressed the theme of honesty and being a consensus builder. He touted his record in Texas as evidence that he works with both sides of the political world to get things done.
Toward the tail end of the debate, Bush was asked if he was proud that Texas led the nation in death penalty executions. After the last debate, critics said Bush seemed to express a certain amount of pride over the execution of criminals in his state.
However, he stated that he wasn’t proud of it but was simply acting out what the people of his state elected him to do.
Gore followed Bush by expressing his own support for the death penalty. To separate himself from Bush, the vice president noted his desire to see more reliance on DNA evidence.