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Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 07:32 GMT 08:32 UK
Analysis: Few sparks, little drama

This was the first of three TV debates

By Philippa Thomas in Boston

Al Gore won on points - but narrowly.

He seemed to me better briefed, more articulate, more assertive. You could say he appeared the more presidential candidate.


As for a sense of drama, well, I'll be honest. There wasn't very much. No killer lines. No great jokes

But that same performance could have alienated wavering voters too.

The vice-president's critics could well describe him as arrogant, aggressive, and just a little too ready to show off his knowledge of intricate policy details.

To begin with, Vice-President Gore and Governor Bush appeared the perfect match.

As they strode stage, both men were in Debate Uniform: the sober black suit, the deep red power tie, that "Oval Office" look. Both were tense. The handshake was perfunctory.

Key themes

Both had ample chance to get their key themes across. For the Texas governor, the theme was giving government - and government money - back to the American people.

He's offering the bigger tax cut by far, cash which he says shouldn't be hoarded by government but go back to the hardworking people.

As he put it, it's money "to build and save and dream for your families".

Governor Bush also hit out frequently at big government, "exploding" bureaucracy, and what he called time and again "Washington fuzzy math". His was a simple, classic Republican appeal.

But time and again, Al Gore threw it back in his face. The vice-president's line - "I want to enrich not just the few but all of our families."

The Bush tax cut, he charged, would enrich only the wealthiest one per cent.

So the Democrat also stayed firmly on message - painting himself as populist crusader, man of the people, against the candidate of wealth, special interests, and big oil.

On the biggest policy difference of all - as far as presentation goes - I think I'd call it a draw.

Different experiences

Where the balance began to shift was - predictably - in the field of foreign policy.


It did remind me rather of two school boys facing a dreaded test in the first week back after the long summer holidays

Al Gore of course has years of experience to offer: in Congress, in the Senate, and for eight years in the White House as one of the most powerful vice-presidents the nation has known.

George W Bush has background of course - his own father in the White House - but his experience of government is limited to Texas.

When both were asked about Yugoslavia - how would they push Milosevic to relinquish office - Gore answered with more detailed analysis of the situation. Bush began more simply, saying "It's time for the man to go".

And when both were asked how they'd dealt as leaders with unexpected situations, Gore spoke about his efforts to bring resolution to the conflict in Kosovo.

Bush referred to floods back home in Texas. Both answers seemed telling, symbolic of the candidates' different levels of experience.

Sparks

As for a sense of drama, well, I'll be honest. There wasn't very much. No killer lines. No great jokes.


Vice-President Gore made his impatience all too clear with theatrical sighs, head shaking, interventions and protestations

Rather, 90 minutes of often detailed, often technical, often number-crunching debate on fundamental issues like health care policy and the country's welfare system.

Of course, there were sparks. There is little love lost between the two men. Governor Bush derided Al Gore for what he called "the old style Washington politics - trying to scare people into the voting booth".

Vice-President Gore made his impatience all too clear with theatrical sighs, head shaking, interventions and protestations.

The order of the day was tight-lipped tension. But given the opportunity to hit the vice-president over the issue of character, and the Clinton scandals, Governor Bush was if anything restrained.

Those who expected an evening of political mud-wrestling will have switched off from this event sorely disappointed.

To be positive, watching the debate, I felt that this is pure democracy in action.

It can be boring, even mind-numbing. It can be hard to get to the truth through a thicket of statistics and spin.

But this was the first chance America's voters have had to see the candidates under pressure, side by side, to hear their proposals without interruption, and to judge them on their merits.

As for overall impressions, I don't want to detract from the seriousness of this event - which could prove critical to the direction of election 2000.

But it did remind me rather of two school boys facing a dreaded test in the first week back after the long summer holidays.

Both were there, clean and eager, perched behind their desks - only whenever he got the chance, it wasn't George but Al who got there first, and it wasn't George but Al who seemed to shoot up his hand just that little bit higher.

It was an arena much more to his liking, and it showed.

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03 Oct 00 | Election news
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