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Round 2: In Which Bush and Gore Sit Down for a Nice, Civilized Chat

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ED GAY/AP

Handshakes all around in a surprisingly civil debate

Viewed from a distance, Wednesday nightís meeting between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore looked like a reunion of like-minded political operatives. The candidates agreed on principles galore: Bringing U.S. troops home from the Balkans, educating children, projecting a powerful but humble national image to the rest of the world.

Scratch the surface of equanimity, however, and you uncover a basic philosophical chasm: Bush wants to keep his hands out of pretty much every national and international policy issue, while Gore wants to immerse himself up to his elbows.

It was, from the first question, an extremely civilized exchange. Both candidates looked far more at ease than they had in Boston; Goreís cheeks were blessedly free of pancake makeup, while Bush seemed grateful to be sitting down. After a characteristically terse greeting, moderator Jim Lehrer plunged right into foreign policy — an arena Bush aides have apparently been hammering home in debate prep. The governor handled the questions with ease; he delineated his basic theory on American military involvement around the world ("We canít be all things to all people") while Gore stressed the responsibility inherent in being a superpower.

On the Middle East, both confirmed their admiration for the Clinton administrationís handling of the now tattered peace process, and emphasized the importance of keeping a pre-emptive eye on Saddam Hussein. When asked whether the U.S. should take a clear side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Gore scored a point by responding like a true diplomat: If we throw away our ability to be an honest broker, we throw away an opportunity to be a part of the peace process. Bush concurred — but underscored the military and humanitarian responsibilities of neighboring countries, a point he revisited whenever the topic of American peacekeeping was broached. "We do not want to overcommit our troops."

Bushís repeated expression of respect for the current administrationís foreign policy was tempered only by the suggestion that he would have done more to unseat Saddam Hussein. On Yugoslavia and Milosevic, the lovefest continued: "I believe the administration deserves credit" for insisting on the U.S. intervention that contributed to Milosevicís overthrow, Bush purred. Amidst all the back-patting, there was one moment of tension: When Gore attempted to trip Bush on his previous pledge to keep U.S. troops out of non-essential deployments, citing the war crimes in Bosnia, Bush fired back: "I donít know who the questioner is here," prompting Lehrer to rouse himself from his passive observation and briefly regain control of the exchange, patiently reminding the candidates they werenít allowed to question each other directly.

In possibly the most reductive question ever posed to presidential candidates, Lehrer whipped out a laundry list of past U.S. military interventions, including Lebanon, the Gulf War and Somalia, and asked both for a pro- or con- position statement. Here, Goreís response was more thoughtful, but Bush got a much-needed chuckle when he reminded Lehrer, "You know, Iíve got kind of a conflict of interest on some of these, if you know what I mean."

Lehrer pointed out that Bush did not seem particularly interested in sending troops to Africa. The Governor responded with his first head-slapper of the night, saying, "Africa is importantÖ Itís an important continent."

The candidates then proceeded to agree on giving money to corrupt governments (not a good idea), judicious foreign aid (yes, please) and reforming the International Monetary Fund (definitely).

At this point, Lehrer had apparently exhausted every two-minute foreign policy question, so he moved on to domestic issues. And Gore, who had been almost visibly holding back through the first 45 minutes, finally sunk his teeth into the exchange, effectively grilling Bush on failed attempts to pass hate crimes legislation in Texas and managing to paint himself as an ally of both Cheney and Lieberman on the issue of gay marriage. On gun control, the differences were less stark: Gore favoring licensing but vowing to keep his hands off "huntersí and sportsmenís rifles." Bush held up pretty well, pushing for stricter enforcement of current laws and returning again to his mantra of local control, implicating Gore as the defender of big, intrusive government.

When the talk turned to health insurance, you could almost see Gore licking his chops. Bush gave a pat response about policy initiatives, and Gore launched into an attack on Texasí record: "Texas ranks 49th in the nation for children with healthcare, 49th in the nation for women with healthcare and 50th for families with healthcare," he crowed. The Governor looked miffed, as if Gore had just insulted him personally, which perhaps he had. Bush responded with an attack on Goreís role in Hillary Clintonís disastrous universal health care proposal, noting that Texas had done a better job of insuring people than the federal government.

This presented the veep with his big chance to pull the "just folks" response: "I donít know about all these percentages heís tossing out." Lehrer pushed Bush back to Goreís accusation, leaving the Governor looking defensive and slightly put out.

Gore the environmentalist also got in a few good shots (attacking Texasí grim air quality and somehow getting Bush to assert "we donít know the whole cause behind" global warming) before he went totally off-track and used a passage from the New Testament to defend his tree-hugger status. Bush came back with his usual line: "This is not a matter for federal jurisdiction."

In the final ten minutes, Goreís credibility took its first serious hit: It wasnít on the exaggeration charges — Bush didnít pursue Goreís questionable details from the Boston debate, reminding viewers it was "up to them" to decide if Gore was trustworthy — but on his own campaign ads. Lehrer asked Gore about spots poking fun at Bushís less-than-graceful linguistic gymnastics, and Gore responded, "I donít think we should use language like that." Lehrer retorted, "Itís in your ads." Whoops.

At the final bell, it was clear no one had lost the debate — if anything, both candidates walked away in much better shape than they had last Tuesday. Gore was studiously calm, and kept his exhalations under control, while Bush managed a few jabs at self-deprecating humor that seemed to go over well with the audience. There was far less tension on stage than thereíd been in Boston, and far less interrupting; it was a very pleasant, informative and bone-dry exchange. Which is exactly what we want from our politicians.

Donít we?

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