In recent weeks nearly every opinion poll on the presidential election has Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a dead heat.
The two squared off in their first debate Tuesday night at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. PBS “Newshour” anchor Jim Lehrer lobbed questions at the candidates and watched as they butted heads on nearly every major issue.
It will be a few days before polls will determine which candidate did the best job persuading the five to 10 percent of likely voters who have yet to commit to either politician.
Social Security, prescription drugs, military readiness, tax cuts and several other topics sparked heated exchanges between the two candidates.
Lehrer attempted to keep both Gore and Bush focused on the questions as well as within the agreed time limits. Time and again the two men bounced back and forth, stressing key elements of their proposals and records.
Television commentators, for the most part, declared Gore the victor immediately following the debate.
Prior to the debate, Bush and many of his staffers attempted to promote the idea that Gore is a the better debater to lower the expectations for Bush supporters. Debating, as Bush has stated numerous times, is not his strong suit.
Bush’s director of communications, Karen Hughes, went so far as to call Gore the best debater in modern American political history.
However, Bush seemed to hold his own better than many people expected. He avoided the major speaking errors and trip-ups that have plagued his campaign at times.
As expected Gore attempted to appeal to voters by directly addressing them instead of Bush. Gore tried to keep his reputation for going for the jugular to a minimum.
“You may want to focus on scandals; I want to focus on results,” Gore said.
Bush, as many analysts had predicted, tried vigorously to assail Gore’s character.
“I felt there needed to be a better sense of responsibility of what was going on in the White House,” he said. He also accused Gore of hypocrisy regarding campaign finance reform.
The candidates also addressed what could be considered lesser-known topics. The question of whether or not to drill for oil in Alaska was one issue that drew a stark contrast between the two men.
Bush said it’s prudent to tap America’s natural resources if it means decreasing the nation’s dependence on foreign energy resources. He further noted the country is in a position to tap into resources while still stressing environmental protection.
The Democratic candidate countered by promoting the search for alternative sources of energy and forcefully said he would not tap into the Alaskan wilderness to utilize natural resources.
Plucking a question out of current events, Lehrer pressed the men on the recent FDA approval of the RU-486 abortion pill. Bush boiled his argument down to his pro-choice stance. He explained his belief that America needs an environment with fewer, not more abortions.
The Republican said a sitting president has little ability to overturn the FDA ruling, essentially making the question irrelevant.
Gore expressed his support for the FDA’s decision and used it to launch into his own pro-choice background.
Going along with this topic was the issue of Supreme Court appointments. Gore noted that as many as four justices could be appointed to the court by the next president.
The Nov. 7 election is shaping up to be the closest since 1960 when John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon.
The vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney, face off Thursday in Danville, Ky.
Bush and Gore will debate twice more: Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis, Mo.
George Fairbanks covers elections and welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3221. He can also be reached at [email protected]