Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, echoing similar themes and priorities, each told a New Hampshire audience here tonight that if elected president he would work to expand health care coverage, increase school funding and fight to enact campaign finance reform.
In a nationally televised town meeting, Gore sought to accentuate his differences with his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. He repeatedly challenged the potential cost of Bradley's health care plan, saying that it would wipe out the entire $1 trillion surplus over the next 10 years and "shred the social safety net."
Bradley initially ignored Gore's attacks, then attempted to brush aside the criticism by saying he was confident that he could pay for his plan, and other priorities, and stay within a balanced budget. But he pointedly noted that until tonight Gore had refused to attach cost estimates to his ambitious agenda and said that a politician who proposes programs without giving the cost "is just politically posturing."
Gore also used his opening question to distance himself from President Clinton, even though the questioner never mentioned the president's name in asking about public cynicism toward politics.
"I understand the disappointment and anger you feel toward President Clinton and I felt it myself," Gore said, referring to the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. "I also feel that the American people want to move on and turn the page and focus on the future and not the past."
He defended himself against charges that he should have spoken out more aggressively at the time, asserting that he was trying to provide "continuity and stability" during a tumultuous time.
It was a stock answer by the vice president, but it was notable for his eagerness to deal directly with an issue that hangs over his candidacy.
For the most part, the hour-long event was marked more by civility and general agreement on a wide range of domestic issues than by disagreement or rancor. The two candidates made clear they would support a more ambitious and costly agenda than Clinton has advocated, and endorsed policies that are important to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
The clearest distinction came in how each presented his agenda and himself. Gore appeared anxious to take charge of the town meeting, beginning 15 minutes before the cameras were turned on when he invited the audience to throw questions at him and Bradley. And he constantly sought to make personal connections with the audience, calling questioners by their first names and inquiring about their family situations.
Asked about mental health care coverage, Gore said emphatically, "I promise you, give me a chance to roll up my sleeves and go to work on this. This is one I will fix for you."
Bradley was more laid-back but in many ways no less passionate about his vision. He used many of his answers to sketch a broad view of the presidency in contrast to Gore. "You ought to have big solutions to big problems, because that's what America is all about," Bradley said. "It's about dreaming and being able to fulfill those dreams."
The town meeting, which came 14 weeks before the state's first-in-the-nation primary, was held on the campus of Dartmouth College and sponsored by CNN and WMUR-TV of Manchester, N.H. Bradley and Gore sat on stools eight feet apart, but each walked to the front of the stage to respond to questions from members of the audience.
Both men appeared relaxed throughout, but Gore approached the evening as a potentially pivotal moment in which he needed to dispel recurring criticism that he is aloof or distant. He even stayed around for almost 90 minutes afterward answering questions from the audience and the press.
The forum marked the biggest event to date in the fight for the Democratic nomination and came after Bradley drew even and then overtook Gore in several statewide polls here. But new national and state polls suggest Gore may have stopped what one adviser described as "hemorrhaging" in his campaign. A Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today showed Gore closing the gap with GOP leader Texas Gov. George W. Bush. A month ago, Bush led 56 percent to 39 percent; the new survey put Gore behind by 9 percentage points.
The event drew hundreds of members of the media to this small college town near the Vermont border. Throughout the day, supporters of Gore and Bradley lined the streets and camped out on opposite corners, waving signs and trading chants. One unidentified woman, who had strolled past the hoopla, commented, "You would think the election were tomorrow."
As Bradley gained ground this fall, Gore became more aggressive in his tactics. And while he showed some of that tonight, the town meeting provided the most substantive discussion by the two Democrats about where they would take the country.
In the state where Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) shook hands on a promise to enact campaign finance reform, several of the questions tonight focused on the political system and the cynicism of many Americans toward politicians.
Bradley and Gore agreed with that assessment and said they would use their administrations to restore public confidence. "Politics has become the mechanics of winning," Bradley told the audience even before the session began. "Too much spending, fund-raising and polling. What's been lost is a sense of service."
When the subject was raised during the broadcast, Gore spoke of his own disillusionment with politics after serving in Vietnam and witnessing the Watergate scandal.
While Gore looked for opportunities to engage Bradley, the former senator seemed to go out of his way to avoid them. He passed up an invitation from one questioner to criticize the fund-raising practices of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996.
Bradley and Gore said they strongly supported gay rights. "If a gay American can serve openly in the White House, in Congress, in the courts, in the Treasury Department, in the attorney general's office, why can't they serve openly in the U.S. military?" Bradley said. "It doesn't make sense."
Gore called Bradley's answer "very eloquent" but said he disagreed with his proposal to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In an era of budget surpluses, neither Gore nor Bradley evidenced any anxiety about spending money to attack the social problems raised by members of the audience. They supported additional money for special education, for protecting the environment, for inner-city schools, to alleviate child poverty and for various aspects of health care.
Gore made repeated efforts to engage Bradley on the cost of his health care plan. Bradley has proposed a dramatic expansion in access to health insurance for children and many adults now without coverage, and would provide federal subsidies to pay the cost for many Americans. He estimated the plan would cost as much as $650 billion over 10 years.
Citing a new study by Emory University, the vice president said the Bradley plan would actually cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years. He accused Bradley of coming up with "proposals that sound great, but for which there is no money."
Gore said his plan would cost about $150 billion over 10 years but claimed it would cover nearly as many people as Bradley's--90 percent of all Americans to Bradley's 95 percent--something he has never said before.
Few of the questions dealt with foreign policy, but Gore and Bradley appeared to have some differences in their willingness to commit U.S. forces overseas. "We're the natural leader of the world," Gore said, adding, "We have to accept that mantle of leadership."
Bradley, however, warned that there are too many ethnic conflicts in the world that the United States must choose carefully where to deploy forces and when to rely on multilateral or regional institutions. "There are 32 ethnic wars in the world today," Bradley said. "There is no way we have the resources or the wisdom to be involved in all 32 ethnic wars."
CAPTION: Bill Bradley listens to rival for Democratic presidential nomination, Vice President Gore, answer question at forum in Hanover, N.H.
CAPTION: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley and his wife Ernestine (with earmuffs) greet backers in Hanover, N.H.