Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley clashed over health care and education in a 90-minute debate tonight that, while at times pointed, was far more polite than their acrid exchanges on the campaign trail of late.
Perched on stools as they fielded questions from an audience of New Hampshire voters and from ABC "Nightline" host Ted Koppel, the two Democratic rivals largely avoided harsh personal attacks, agreeing on subjects as diverse as religion, gay rights and the need for more "self-restraint" by a violence-obsessed media.
While Bradley remained the calmer of the two, he was more assertive in tonight's debate, claiming to be the most ardent anti-gun advocate and the candidate willing to take big political risks. For his part, Gore hit Bradley on his lack of a detailed education program and suggested that, unlike the former New Jersey senator, he is willing to battle special interests such as the pharmaceutical industry--a sector Bradley has been chided for being too close to.
The two met for a taped television debate at Daniel Webster College, in the state that holds the first presidential primary of the 2000 campaign Feb. 1. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week shows that the two remain dead even in New Hampshire, though Gore continues to hold a substantial lead over Bradley nationally.
In their first encounter seven weeks ago, Gore assumed a far more aggressive campaign posture, charging that Bradley's health care plan would "shred the social safety net." Tonight, his new line of attack was education: Gore insisted that for him, this topic is a "national priority" while Bradley is "just nibbling around the edges."
And he lashed Bradley for voting in support of vouchers for private schools.
"I have always opposed vouchers--that's been a big disagreement for 18 years between Senator Bradley and myself," Gore charged. "Every single time vouchers came up in the Senate, Bill, for 18 years you voted for them. Now you're proposing vouchers in place of Medicaid."
Bradley, leaping into the fray, rejected Gore's accusations. "I never supported--even experimentally--any voucher program that took any public money away from public education," he said.
His sharpest jabs came on health care when he argued that Gore's proposal chiefly targets children and falls far short of reaching the 44 million uninsured Americans.
"Will you leave out the part-time worker who doesn't have health insurance? Will you leave out the downsized industrial worker who loses his health insurance?" Bradley asked in a steady voice. "Will you leave out the 40 percent of the people who live in poverty, who don't have any health insurance?"
"The answer is I won't leave out anyone," Gore replied, seeming flustered as he searched for words. Later he revised his assessment: "Neither one of us has covered everyone."
After Gore dismissed Bradley's proposal to replace the federal Medicaid program for the poor with $150-a-month "little vouchers," Bradley responded with pique.
"They're not vouchers, Al," he said. "It's the federal government taking responsibility for people's health care who don't have it."
Hours before the debate, Bradley's campaign team attempted to reframe the health care argument more to its liking by releasing an analysis arguing that Bradley's health care plan would insure 30 million new Americans, while Gore's would reach only 7 million uninsured. The report was prepared by three informal Bradley advisers who helped prepare the initiative.
The analysis concluded that Bradley's plan, which would provide subsidies to allow health coverage of 95 percent of the population, would insure all of the 11.1 million children who are currently uninsured and 18.8 million adults with incomes of up to twice the official poverty level. Gore's plan, according to the analysis, would provide coverage for 1.6 million more children and 5.6 million more adults.
In the early going, the two men tried to strike a cordial tone, agreeing that in order to prevent horrors like the gun deaths at Columbine High School in Colorado, they would press for more parental involvement and self-restraint by the media. And although their gun control proposals are quite similar, Bradley claimed his plan for gun registration is more stringent than Gore's licensing of gun buyers.
"I'm the only candidate in this race that's called for mandatory licensing and registration of all handguns in this country," Bradley said.
There was little mention of campaign finance reform this evening, and because many of the 300 people in the auditorium here set the agenda with their questions, much of the debate was spent on issues that have not been heavily promoted by the candidates.
One woman, remarking that the Republican contenders recently spoke at length about Jesus Christ, asked the Democrats how they felt about injecting faith into the presidential campaign.
Gore, noting that the number of atheists in America is rising, reiterated his support for separation of church and state. But, he added: "I affirm my faith when I'm asked about it, but I always try to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God."
Bradley, who has consistently refused to offer detailed explanations of subjects ranging from his health to his family, was equally reticent about religion.
"I think that a person's religious faith is the deepest, most intimate aspect of their lives--it goes to the very essence of their belief," Bradley said. "In my own case, I've decided that personal faith is private and I will not discuss it with the public."
When asked about drug use, the two Democrats acknowledged smoking marijuana decades ago, but Bradley again drew another line.
"I think the public has a right to know if I'm a crook and not a sinner . . . I don't think people think this is a determinative issue," he said.
The pair agreed on expanding protections for gays and lesbians and permitting homosexuals to serve openly in the military. On foreign policy the two agreed on the need to strike a balance between Taiwan and China but offered no new proposals on international affairs.
Gore and Bradley meet again Sunday for a debate on NBC's "Meet the Press."