A little good news for Gore

The debate kinda, sorta goes his way, but he still doesn't play well with others. Polls call the contest a draw, and both candidates get called on their errors.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published October 18, 2000 10:16AM (EDT)

Though both Al Gore and George W. Bush left Washington University in St. Louis smiling, polls indicated that the third and final debate ended without a knockout punch. The Associated Press reports that the contest reinforced the negative and positive impressions Americans already had of the candidates. Gore was confident and clear on the facts, but his tactics tickled the line between assertive and aggressive. In one early instance, Gore stepped right up to Bush as the Texas governor answered a question. For his part, Bush stayed friendly and personable, but didn't demonstrate the command of the issues -- or the stage -- that he had marshaled in debate No. 2. For example, when Gore pressed Bush on the question of affirmative action, the Republican dithered and complained that Gore wasn't playing by the rules. Bush "probably wishes he had that one back," said Michigan GOP Gov. John Engler.

With Gore and Bush taking two steps forward and one step back, few minds were changed by Tuesday night's battle, concluded Washington University political scientist Wayne Fields. "It was an extension of what we've seen before," he said. As for the voters' final state of mind, "It goes back to where people's inclination was before they decided they were undecided," Fields suggested. "This may give them more confirmation of that original impulse."

Tie game or Gore edge?
The instant public opinion surveys largely confirmed that the contest ended in a draw. The ABC News poll taken immediately following the debate showed that voters split evenly in picking a winner, with Bush and Gore each getting that call from 41 percent of the group; 14 percent said the candidates were tied. This poll has a 4.5-point margin of error. Voters in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll scored the contest 46 to 44 percent in Gore's favor. This survey has a five-point margin of error. Finally, CBS News' instant survey gave Gore a (very) little something to cheer about, with 45 percent of viewers crowning the vice president as the debate's victor, compared with 40 percent who picked Bush. But factoring in the four-point margin of error, this poll is also a statistical tie.

Return of the attack man
Town hall debate watchers noticed a big change in the vice president's approach since the last contest: He didn't back off at all. CNN reports that a group of uncommitted Michigan voters had a mixed response to the new/old Gore. According to Sheryl Bruins-Rozier, Gore unfairly hijacked the debate to suit his own purposes. "He ... was not answering the questions that were asked of him," she said. "He had his agenda of what he wanted to talk about tonight and no matter what the question was, he had to get back to his agenda." Joell Cooper, who, like Bruins-Rozier, went into the debate undecided and came out the same way, agreed that Gore went too far. "There's fighting for what you want, and then there's being argumentative," he said.

But the feisty Gore earned a few fans as well. "I think that Al Gore showed that he knew his facts much more than what Bush did," said Julie Kallio. "Bush hemmed and hawed, beat around the bush and did not give direct answers to several questions." Tougher meant better to Carmen Stuyvenberg, too. "Last week I did think Vice President Gore seemed rather wimpy by agreeing with Bush. I wanted to see the differences. He wants my vote, he's got to convince me why," she said. Tuesday night, Gore gave Stuyvenberg the change she was looking for. "He knows his issues, he knows his stands and I think today he proved it," she concluded.

Gore goes full throttle
The ambivalence expressed by the debate audience didn't dampen the Democratic candidate's spirits, nor shake his team's belief that Gore beat Bush soundly, according to Reuters. "Clearly this is a very close race and both candidates needed a strong performance and only one gave it, Al Gore," said Gore running mate Joseph Lieberman. Gore campaign advisor Greg Simon echoed that sentiment. "Tonight, Al Gore defined the issues, defined the differences and defined the decision," he said. So the Gore group launches into a tour of heartland states Wednesday with a renewed sense of purpose and a big agenda. "Al Gore will be laying out the big differences between him and George W. Bush and the big choices that America faces on some of the most important issues of our time -- healthcare, education, Social Security, tax cuts and the environment," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane.

Sticking to the issues
Gore hammered his main policy points even as Bush repeatedly labeled him a big spender. The Washington Post reports that the vice president put on his policy wonk hat for many of the debate skirmishes, deflecting Bush's charge that Gore would swell the government by asserting that it was the Texas government that had grown in recent years as Gore worked to slim down the federal bureaucracy. He also went back to his populist theme, again attacking Bush's tax cut as being a treat for the wealthy. Despite the recent international crises, foreign affairs didn't come up nearly as much in the third debate as it had in the previous two. But Bush's Texas record was back in the spotlight, and that was something the Republican was happy to defend. As he has tried to do with all remarks about his tenure in Texas, Bush turned a question about the a bill of rights for patients into a question about bipartisan leadership. He dismissed Gore's insistence that the Texas law was weaker than what the Democrats had proposed on Capitol Hill. "It's not a question of philosophy," Bush said. "The question is, can you get things done?"

Just the facts, sir
As has been the case in the other Bush-Gore contests, it takes a moment to sort the rhetoric from the facts. Both candidates slipped up, according to the Dallas Morning News. Bush fudged the facts in an early exchange when he claimed that he led a bipartisan coalition to pass a patients bill of rights, including the right of patients to sue their HMOs. Not so. Bush vetoed legislation with the right to sue in 1995, and in 1997 refused to sign the patients rights bill that eventually became Texas law. The Republican also overstated his diversity record when he claimed that his state appointees "looked like Texas." While 30 percent of Texas' population is Hispanic, only about 13 percent of Bush appointees have been. There is a less dramatic disparity for blacks, who make up 13 percent of the Texas population and 9 percent of Bush's appointees.

Gore also practiced his share of fuzzy math during the contest. His assertion that Texas ranked dead last in the country in citizens covered by health insurance was wrong. Texas recently moved up a notch, leaving New Mexico in the basement with 25.6 percent of its citizens uninsured, compared with 23.3 percent in Texas. Gore made an even bigger error when he accused pharmaceutical companies of spending more on promotion than on research and development. Actually, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that the industry spent $21 billion on research and development and just $5.8 billion on advertising.

On the trail
Bush: Wisconsin.
Buchanan: Minnesota.
Gore: Missouri and Michigan.
Nader: Texas.

Presidential poll positions
Major-party candidates:

  • Bush 47 to Gore 44 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 14-16).
  • Bush 44 to Gore 43 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 13-15).
  • Bush 48 to Gore 44 (Washington Post/ABC News Oct. 12-15).
  • Bush 43 to Gore 41 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 12-14).
  • 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).

    Third-party candidates:

  • Nader 3 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 14-16).
  • Nader 6 to Buchanan 1, Browne 1 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 13-15).
  • 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).

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  • Alicia Montgomery

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

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