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HANOVER, N.H.--In their first face-to-face debate of the presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore '69 and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley wrestled last night for control of voter momentum in the Democratic party.
Continuing a tactic he has pursued successfully for two weeks, Gore attacked Bradley, criticizing the cost of his health care program, his support for school vouchers and his opposition to U.S. intervention in East Timor.
But Bradley declined to criticize his opponent, and the debate remained free of acrimony.
The audience at Dartmouth College, mostly white and full of students and professors, asked the two men about their positions on everything from violence in schools and gay rights to more obscure issues like care for Alzheimer's patients and increased funding for special education, trying to draw out specific proposals from the candidates.
At one point, Gore was contrite about the state of his campaign. Two polls taken within the past week show Bradley with a nine-point lead in New Hampshire, and Gore has been roundly criticized for not taking control of an unwieldy campaign staff.
Although Bradley has spent more time shaking hands in the Granite State, Gore has blitzed through the region in the past several days, making sure to visit working class neighborhoods and adopting an air of spontaneity in the process.
"We probably learn more from our mistakes than our successes," he said last night. "In the last six or eight weeks, I've had a learning experience in New Hampshire and Iowa. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people of New Hampshire for telling me about your hopes and dreams for this country."
The vice president told one questioner that the biggest mistake of his political career was his claim that he "invented" the Internet. "There are so many to choose from," he joked.
The two topics that attracted the greatest interest from audience questioners were campaign finance reform and health care reform, bread-and-butter issues for Democrats in the 2000 race.
Gore said he supported the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which would ban "soft-money" contributions to political parties, and he trumpeted his refusal to accept money from political action committees.
But Bradley hinted that the Clinton-Gore administration had not pressed hard enough to pass campaign finance measures. "You need a president who is going to make campaign finance reform one of the top three, four, five issues," he said, drawing applause from the audience.
The candidates sparred over their competing proposals to overhaul the health care system. Gore claimed Bradley's proposal would coast $1.2 trillion, larger than the projected federal budget surplus, a figure Bradley later disputed.
"We have to save some of this surplus for Medicare," Gore said.
Asked about the "essence of leadership," Gore expressed a view of the presidency championed by Andrew Jackson in 1828. "A president is the only person in our constitutional system who has the responsibility to fight for the welfare...of all of our people," Gore said.
For Bradley, the most important leadership quality is "absolutely integrity. Honesty and integrity. Second, I think that a leader has got to have the ability to see around the corner, to see the future before it's here," Bradley said.
On the economy, an issue on the minds of many New Hampshire residents who remember how hard their state was hit by the recession of 1991-92, Bradley and Gore outlined different priorities for the projected trillion dollar budget surplus.
While Bradley advocated spending more on public education and health, Gore said he favored restraint--and repeated throughout the evening his concern that Bradley would spend money recklessly.
"Spending more than the entire surplus and then putting on top of that proposals that may sound great and there's no money, it's something we've got to look at very, very carefully," Gore said.
The loudest applause of the evening came after Bradley answered a question on gay rights.
Asked how he would take command of the issue, Bradley reiterated his position that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.
"I am against all discrimination. I am against discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. The place to deal with that is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes," he said.
After a period of sustained applause, Gore said that he and Bradley have similar positions on the issue of domestic partnerships. But, he said, same sex unions should not share "the same sacrament, the same name...because I favor the institution of marriage as it has been understood between a man and a woman."
Gore added that many gay advocates and civil rights leaders opposed Bradley's plan to open up the Civil Rights Act to possible alteration by Congressional Republicans.
On the environment, Gore's signature issue, the vice president was at his most animated. His answers ranged from praise of a global environmental treaty to a personal plea that Americans take a close look at their surroundings.
"A president can make a huge difference," Gore said. As president Gore said he would offer tax incentives to businesses that developed ways of caring for the planet.
Bradley asked voters to look at his Senate career, which he said reflected a strong commitment to the environment.
"We have two challenges. One is to clean up that which has already been polluted, and then second, to protect those areas, which have not been polluted from becoming polluted," he said. Bradley said he would use the moral force of the presidency to convince people that the environment was worth federal action.
The unique format of the debate gave candidates two minutes to answer questions posed by the audience.
Gore's habit of asking questioners to repeat their names if he didn't hear--a Clintonian campaign tactic in 1992--brought some moments of awkwardness.
When a woman asked Gore how he planned to end violence in schools, Gore asked her to tell him about her family.
"I have one daughter, 17 months, and a husband. So it's a small family," she replied.
"Which one do you have the most trouble with?" Gore asked with a smile.
"It depends," the woman answered.
Gore turned serious, asking forbearance to comment again on Bradley's plan to spend the federal surplus. Then he answered the woman's question.
"I think we ought to have zero tolerance for guns in schools. We ought to have more guidance counselors, more psychologists. We out to ban junk guns and Saturday Night specials."
The majority of audience members leaving Dartmouth's Moore Theater after the debate said they favored Bradley. Gore's performance, they said, was too studied to be effective.
"It seems like Gore was going after Bradley and Bradley was just laying things on the table," said C. Aaron Beck, a first-year student at Dartmouth. "[It was] traditional campaign politics versus just telling people what he thought."
"I'm definitely a Bradley supporter," said Benjamin B. Berk, a Dartmouth senior. "I believe he's a true idealist."
By contrast, Berk said, "I was disappointed in the show and antics [Gore] put on...and the advantage he took of the stage."
But others said they were impressed by both men's performances.
Back inside the hall, Gore advisers and several Clinton administration cabinet secretaries swarmed around reporters to share their views of the evening.
Asked if he thought Gore had scored points with his spontaneity, an ebullient Energy Secretary Bill Richardson lauded the vice president.
"He was genuine," Richardson said. "That's the Al Gore I love, and that's what I've always seen. That's what made him connect with the audience, and that's why he won this debate."
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