At Wednesday night's Democratic debate at the
University of New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls Bill Bradley and
Al Gore showed the seasoning that they've picked up from their
four previous verbal matches.
Like boxers mid-bout, each has clearly
figured out not only which of their punches will likely land, but
also how best to defend against his opponent's attacks. It made for a
pretty active night of sparring, the New Hampshire and MSNBC audience
mercifully spared prior displays of Bradley's disgusted petulance and
Gore's cloying hyperactivity.
For Bradley, that means waxing leader-like, talking up big ideas,
trying to inspire Democratic voters by conjuring forth FDR and LBJ.
No longer nearly as befuddled by Gore's attacks, Bradley still seemed
somewhat irritated by some of Gore's charges -- even claiming to have
been "offended" by Gore's charge that his health-care plan would
disproportionately harm African-Americans and Latinos.
But Bradley landed some solid shots of his own, painting Gore as a
typical pol hunkered down in a "Washington bunker." As for Gore's
charge that Bradley didn't "stay and fight" in the Senate when he
retired in 1996, Bradley said that plenty of Americans "think a lot
of people in Washington stay too long and fight too much."
For his part, Gore seems to have finally adjusted the volume on his
rhetorical stereo -- aggressively asserting his experience,
challenging Bradley on his past votes and future plans, while staying
away from the eardrum-shattering decibel blasts of debates past.
Casting his "I-get-knocked-down, but-I-get-up-again" pugilism as an
asset for the American people, Gore tried to illustrate that Bradley
is an aloof professor-type by asking him to admit that past Senate
votes were mistakes. "The presidency is not an academic exercise,"
Gore sniped, "it's not an extended seminar on theory. It has to be a
daily fight for people."
Gore argued that the presidency is a job that requires his kind
of experience, as opposed to Bradley's fantasies, as manifest in the
former New Jersey senator's health-care proposal. "The country can
ill-afford big mistakes by a president who stumbles into something
that could be avoided with the kind of judgment and experience people
ought to expect in a president."
It was an interesting maneuver by Gore, trying to
turn his legendary record of political missteps into a plus, and damn
Bradley with his own self-righteousness.
Intimating that Bradley is aloof and incapable of admitting mistakes
-- while he, conversely, is a fighter who is constantly learning --
Gore then asked Bradley if he regretted three Senate votes -- voting
for the Reagan spending cuts, against Bush's call for military action
against Iraq and against the Clinton welfare reform bill.
Bradley said that he didn't think any of the three votes were mistakes. If every
senator had voted as he did -- for the Reagan spending cuts and
against the Reagan tax cuts -- there would have been no deficit
problem, Bradley countered. Welfare reform remains a bill he opposes
as was military action against Iraq in its context.
Gore pointed out that Bradley hadn't uttered the word "mistake" once.
"The country deserves a president who, when he makes a mistake, is
willing to acknowledge it and willing to learn from it," Gore said.
"The presidency is not an academic exercise."
"If you want me to admit a mistake so I can pass a
litmus test," Bradley countered, "I voted against [Federal Reserve
Chairman] Alan Greenspan the first time -- that was a mistake."
The debate, moderated by the dapper and thespianic Peter Jennings of
ABC News, was held at the Johnson Theater at UNH, a land-grant
university of 10,500 students, tucked at a triangle's corner from
both Portland, Maine, and Boston, Mass.
To be sure, neither candidate needed a map to find the campus. Since last
spring, both Bradley and Gore have spent upwards of a month apiece in
the first-in-the-nation primary state, where the candidates
are neck and neck.
The most recent poll, conducted by the American
Research Group and conducted from Dec. 29 until Dec. 31, had Bradley
barely edging Gore, 42 percent to 39 percent. But Bradley's
numbers have been sinking -- down from 48 percent just two weeks ago --
and Gore's have been slowly rising as the Feb. 1 election day approaches.
Thus, Wednesday's debate was just one appearance in a full New England
itinerary for both men. On Tuesday, Bradley presented a 10-year plan to
eliminate more than $140 billion in corporate tax benefits. That
night, he participated in a televised town meeting at New Hampshire's St.
Anselm College with CNBC's Chris Matthews.
On Wednesday, Gore had his own larger-than-life burly Irishman on
hand, as he received the endorsement of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who accompanied the vice president on a New Hampshire campaign swing Wednesday. Kennedy said
Gore has "the ability, the vision and
the experience to lead this nation wisely and well in the coming
years, and I'll be proud to stand with you in the great battles that
lie ahead." Thirty years ago, Kennedy stood with another Gore, Gore's
father, former Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, who seconded Kennedy's
nomination as Senate majority whip.
Wednesday, however, the comfort of Kennedy's ample bosom was replaced
by some tough questions from Jennings, along with John DiStaso of the Manchester Union Leader,
Alison King of New England Cable News and Jenny Attiyeh of New
Hampshire Public Television. When Bradley and Gore sidestepped
questions, Jennings, in an entertaining mix of chivalry, toughness
and whimsy, would turn to the local reporter and ask if his or her
question had been answered satisfactorily. Or he would press the
As a result of Jennings' persistence, we can now be assured that future GOP campaign spots will feature both Bradley
and Gore proclaiming that anyone either man names to the Joint Chiefs
of Staff will need to support a lift on the ban on gays and lesbians
openly serving in the military, a fact which was first milked from the two candidates Wednesday night.
Jennings and company also helped produce some lighter moments of the debate, as when Bradley, pressed by
Attiyeh with an assist from Jennings, denied that he was the remote
Carter-esque exemplar of sanctimony that he sometimes seems.
"Take a look? Am I aloof?" Bradley asked, to audience laughter,
pointing out that he'd just held his 46th town meeting in the state.
"You can't be aloof in a New Hampshire town meeting."
Both men refused to shy away from the "liberal" label. "I don't
think the views I have espoused are a disadvantage for running for
president," Bradley argued, saying that gay rights were an issue of
"fundamental human decency," and gun control was one of "common
"I don't care what kind of label people apply to those kinds of
positions and views," Gore said, outlining similar stances on similar
Jennings then opened the format a bit, allowing the foes an exchange
with one another, leading them to inevitable confrontation by asking if either man was offended by a "vote or
quote" misrepresentation his opponent had made.
Bradley, saying he had "a deep commitment to the issue of race in
this country," said that he was "really offended" by Gore's charge
that his health-care plan would "consciously, as part of a policy"
hurt African-Americans and Latinos.
But Gore didn't back off, quoting Harry Truman's protest that "I'm
not giving him hell, I'm just telling the truth and he thinks it's
hell." Bradley's health-care plan, which replaces the hearty Medicaid
benefits package with a much smaller one, would disproportionately damage
minority communities, Gore charged, since those communities are
disproportionately poor and thus more dependent upon Medicaid.
"Look here, in New Hampshire," Gore said, brandishing a cheat-sheet
with a chart of health care figures. "Here are a dozen different
insurance health plans under the federal employee benefit plan, and
not a single one of them can be purchased for anything close to $150
a month," the average subsidy Bradley's plan would provide.
Bradley, with his trademark counter-charge that what Gore's saying
"is just not so," replied that a family of four under the New
Hampshire postal worker's union plan certainly would be able to
purchase the appropriate coverage.
Regardless, "Al is saying all the
time it's a $150 cap. It's not a cap. It's a weighted average,"
Bradley said, "Some places it will be more, some places it will be
"What is a weighted average?" Gore joked. "I remember the old story
about the man who had his feet on a block of ice and his head in the
oven and according to the weighted average, he was really comfortable
"First of all, let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector
works, OK?" Bradley jabbed. "If you have 30 million people, you're
going to find insurance companies competing to provide the lowest
Quickly, however, referee Jennings broke up the clinch. Both
candidates used their remaining time to answer charges and forward
arguments both for themselves against the other man. Bradley said he
was "disappointed" by Gore's insistence that his plan to require
licensing and registration for the "65 million handguns in this
country" was "too difficult to do." Where would the country be, Bradley rhetorically asked, if past leaders like FDR or LBJ had shared Gore's love for
pragmatics. "The essence of leadership ... is making it possible,"
Gore riposted that Bradley's gun licensing and registration plan "doesn't have a prayer of ever becoming law." "You need to find a way to make the political system work," he said, arguing that Bradley had failed to account for the ardent opposition such a "maximalist" proposal would arouse. "So many
people are going to fight tooth and nail [that] kind of maximalist
Gore recast the campaign finance reform challenge he made to Bradley
on NBC's "Meet the Press" in which both men would forego television
ads and participate in twice-weekly debates. Since Bradley quite
credibly argued that as the lesser-known candidate, swearing off such
ads made little sense, Gore put it forward again, limiting it to New
Hampshire, where Bradley leads in the polls. Calling himself the
underdog in the Granite State, Gore said he was "asking people to
give me a come-from-behind upset victory."
"Your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes," Bradley said.
"I hope my upset victory brings tears to your eyes on Feb. 1," Gore returned.
The gloves come off again on Saturday in Iowa.
UNH will host its next
debate in a mere matter of hours, when all six Republicans face off
on Thursday night.