Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley sparred tonight over health care, gun control and who would make the better leader in a spirited but civil debate that launched the final month of campaigning here in New Hampshire.
Gore questioned whether Bradley had the right kind of experience to avoid "big mistakes by a president who stumbles into something that can be avoided with the [right] kind of judgment and experience." He argued that his seven years as vice president left him better equipped than Bradley to continue the nation's prosperity.
Bradley countered that Gore was trapped in a "Washington bunker" that not only precluded solving big problems but also ensured continuation of the brand of combative politics that has left many Americans alienated from their government.
"The reality is the Democratic Party shouldn't be in the Washington bunker with you," Bradley said. "The Democratic Party should be thinking big things with big ambitions."
Tonight's televised event at the University of New Hampshire was sponsored by New Hampshire Public Television, New England Cable News and the Manchester Union Leader. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings moderated the hour-long session. It marked the third time in less than a month that the two Democrats have debated one another. The experience showed, as both candidates offered crisper critiques of one another and more polished defenses of their positions.
While generally polite, the debate nonetheless showed the strains of the fierce competition for the nomination. Gore poked Bradley for getting "a little out of sorts just when I talk about the substance of policy." Bradley, his voice dripping with scorn, said at one point during an exchange on health care, "Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works, okay?"
"Try not to be aloof," Gore shot back.
That was a reference to an earlier question to Bradley about where whether he was too aloof as a politician to be an effective president. Bradley initially ducked the question, then laughed it off when pressed by one of the reporters on the panel. "I've just finished my 46th town meeting in New Hampshire," Bradley said. "You can't be aloof in a New Hampshire town meeting."
Gore took note of polls showing Bradley leading here by trying to make Bradley the front-runner.
"Well, you know, Al, your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes," Bradley said sarcastically. The vice president, smiling, retorted: "I hope that my upset victory brings tears to your eyes on Feb. 1."
For a focus group of Democrats and independents gathered in Bedford, N.H., the main effect of the debate was to firm up the support each candidate had enjoyed before the session. Bradley picked up one undecided voter, but the group gave its highest marks to Gore's suggestion that 30-second ads be dropped for the balance of the New Hampshire campaign and instead the two Democrats meet for more frequent debates on specific issues.
As he did in December, Bradley rejected Gore's proposal to forgo television ads.
The snappish, irritable exchanges over tactics that have marked previous debates were mostly absent tonight, as both candidates appeared eager to keep their disagreements on a more substantive plane, and they addressed a broader range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
Both were aggressive in asserting their support for a policy that would allow gays to serve openly in the miliary. Goremembers of the joint chiefs of staff to iowitaryuse issue orders" that must be followed.
Bradley said he thought the Clinton administration was responsible for a "missed opportunity" with Russia by by devoting too much of its diplomacy to its relationship with Boris Yeltsin rather than communicating more directly with the Russian people. Gore said despite some problems, the administration had scored "some successes" and said he was encouraged that acting president Vladimir Putin was "committed to reform."
Gore also presented himself as a more sure-footed commander in chief, noting that he, unlike Bradley, had been willing to back the use of force in 1991 against Iraq even when most Democrats did not.
During another exchange, Gore offered his most vigorous defense of his actions during last year's impeachment battle. He said he was "critical of the president" for Clinton's conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, although he did not say that the criticism came late in the process. said he was "serving the public interest well" by defending "the office of the presidency against an effort by partisan Republicans in the House and Senate to deliver a thoroughly disproportionate penalty for a serious and reprehensible personal mistake on the part of the president."
The two rivals continued what has become a long-running argument over health care. Bradley said he was "really offended" by Gore's charge that health care plan would harm minorities. But Gore said Bradley's proposed replacement for Medicaid was "entirely inadequate" for low-income families, which he said were disproportionately minority. The federal subsidies, he charged, would not allow many families enough money to buy private insurance. "They would be left high and dry," Gore said.
On gun control, Bradley criticized Gore for failing to support his proposal to license and register all handguns, noting that Clinton had embraced the idea. "What the president said was that yes, he supports that idea but it doesn't have a prayer of ever becoming law and it's much more sensible to try to get the maximum gun control that we possibly can," Gore responded.
Bradley called Gore's response unsatisfactory. "He said essentially that it's too difficult to do," Bradley said. "I ask you, where would the country be today if Franklin Roosevelt said Social Security's too difficult to do. Or if Lyndon Johnson said Medicare's too difficult to do." Leadership, he said, is making the difficult possible.
One of the most pointed exchanges came when Gore asked Bradley whether he regretted three votes as a senator: one in support of President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts in 1981, another opposing the resolution authorizing the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and a third opposing the welfare reform act in 1996.
"The answer is no, I wouldn't have voted differently," Bradley said. Gore said he thought all three were mistakes, but more pointedly criticized Bradley for being unwilling to say he had made mistakes. "I think our country deserves a president who, when he makes a mistake, is willing to acknowledge it and willing to learn from it," Gore said. "The presidency is not an academic exercise, it's not an extended seminar on theory, it has to be a daily fight for the best interests of the American people."
Bradley fired back, "If you want me to admit a mistake so that I can pass this litmus test, I'll admit to a mistake. You know, I voted against [Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan the first time. That was a mistake."
Gore admitted to his own mistakes, particularly on campaign finance. "I think that the Democratic National Committee in the 1996 campaign pressed the limits," he said. "Although there were no legal violations, it was wrong. And I think that the [fund-raising] phone calls that I made [from the White House] were a mistake."
Before arriving in Durham for tonight's debate, Gore and Bradley held dueling events to show off new support in the region.
The first event came in Boston, where Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, in the booming cadences for which he is famous, roared out his endorsement of "I welcome the opportunity to give my wholehearted and complete support to a great friend, a magnificent vice president and the next president of the United States--Al Gore"Bradley countered with a rally to try to shore up his support with women, unveiling a list of more than 600 New Hampshire women who support abortion rights who have endorsed.
CAPTION: Bill Bradley, left, said that Vice President Gore, right, was trapped in a "Washington bunker" that ensures continued combative politics. Gore said his seven years as vice president leave him better equipped to govern the nation.