"W" is for winner

Bush cleans the floor with Gore, according to polls. While the governor now knows foreign policy, he can't explain the messes in Texas.

Published October 12, 2000 10:02AM (EDT)

George W. Bush was the clear winner over Al Gore at Wednesday night's kinder, gentler debate, in the eyes of critics and pollsters. According to an ABC News instant survey, the contest wasn't even close. The Texas governor was the victor in the view of 46 percent of those polled, with only 30 percent giving the win to the vice president. The survey has a 4.5-point margin of error. The poll conducted by USA Today/CNN/Gallup obtained similiar results, with Bush beating Gore by a margin of 49 percent to 36 percent, and a margin of error of five points. Gore was much more competitive in the CBS News survey, though Bush still maintained a slight edge. Those polled gave the Texas governor 51 percent and Gore 48 percent, with a four-point margin of error.

Wait a minute, Mr. Poll Man
The public may have picked Bush, but the professionals picked Gore as the debate's winner. The Associated Press reports that four of five judges on its panel of professional debate coaches gave the vice president a narrow victory, with one judge calling Bush the winner. Melissa Maxcy Wade, veteran debate coach at Atlanta's Emory University, said Gore won the face-off big time by overcoming his "penchant for sighs and smirks," while Bush displayed "Nixon-like pursed lips and sniffing when pushed on questions he did not refute well." Several of the judges thought the vice president drew blood on domestic policy matters, but they lauded Bush for his newfound command of international policy.

No world of difference on global affairs
Though he has built his candidacy on criticizing the current administration, Bush seemed ready to join the Clinton camp on most international matters, according to the New York Times. "It may seem like we're having a great love-fest tonight," Bush said after he and Gore articulated similar positions on the crisis in the Middle East. The Texas governor, however, did slam the administration's use of the military for "nation-building" activities, and repeated his charge that America's armed forces are overextended. But when challenged to name specific recent conflicts that he would have stayed out of, Bush would only call the country's intervention in Haiti a big mistake.

Gore predictably backed his boss on the administration's military maneuvers, though he said he thought the nation was too slow to react to the genocide in Rwanda. Unpredictably, the vice president gave a vigorous defense of nation building, saying that such activity is modeled on the highly successful Marshall Plan enacted after World War II. "We have a fundamental choice to make," Gore said. "Are we going to step up to the plate as a nation the way we did after World War II?"

Messing with Texas
Policy wonk Gore seemed the less comfortable of the two candidates on international matters, but he launched some successful attacks on Bush's backyard. The Houston Chronicle reports that there was much truth in Gore's critique of the Texas record, and that Bush made several mistakes. For one, the governor incorrectly stated that all three men who killed James Byrd -- who died in an infamous Jasper, Texas, hate crime -- were sentenced to death. Only two defendants actually received a death sentence. The governor also fudged the facts on hate crimes legislation. While Texas does have such a law on the books, it was put forward by Bush's predecessor as governor, Ann Richards. What's more, the version of the law passed under Bush has been criticized by civil rights groups -- and Byrd's family -- as toothless and inadequate.

Bush took hits on other issues, including Texas healthcare. He was unable to refute Gore's charge that Texas ranks dead last among the states in healthcare for families. And Bush took a few liberties with the truth when it came to his views on gun control. In the debate, Bush said that he supports instant background checks at gun shows. The catch is that Bush gave voice to that view only hours after a background-check bill died in the Texas Legislature in 1999.

The right to remain silent
Gore, chastened by accusations that he stretched the truth to the breaking point in the first debate, made fewer flubs this time. Reuters reports that the vice president cast a positive light on what is being widely considered a loss for Gore. "I loved it," Gore said of Wednesday's contest. "I think this debate tonight was all about priorities, it was all about values, it was all about the future." Onstage, Gore largely resisted hitting Bush hard on several issues, though his stance changed somewhat in the final moments of the debate.

At the end, Gore slammed Bush for being a dim bulb and having a bad tax plan by damning him with faint praise. In response to whether his campaign had criticized Bush's inability to clearly explain his tax plan, Gore responded: "Anybody would have a hard time trying to make a tax cut plan that's so large, that would put us into such big deficits, that gives almost half the benefits to the wealthiest of the wealthy," he said. "I think anybody would have a hard time explaining that clearly in a way that makes sense to the average person." When the Texas governor shot back that Gore was exaggerating the difficulties of Bush's tax plan, the vice president replied, "Well, I wasn't the one having trouble explaining it."

On the trail
Bush: Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Buchanan: Vermont.
Gore: North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Nader: Florida.

Presidential poll positions
Major-party candidates:

  • Bush 45 to Gore 45 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 8-10).
  • Bush 43 to Gore 42 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 8-10).
  • Gore 48 to Bush 46 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 6-9).
  • Gore 43 to Bush 42 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Gore 44 to Bush 43 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).
  • Gore 44 to Bush 41 (Newsweek Oct. 4-6).

    Third-party candidates:

  • Nader 2 to Buchanan 1 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 8-10).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 1, Browne 1 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 8-10).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 2 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 6-9).
  • Nader 5 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 4-8).
  • Nader 5 to Buchanan 2 (Newsweek Oct. 4-6).

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  • By Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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