BOSTON — Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush clashed over tax cuts, prescription drug assistance under Medicare and abortion Tuesday night in their first campaign debate of the fall, pivot point in the closest White House contest in a generation.
Combative from the outset, Gore charged that his rival’s tax plan would “spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent than all of the new spending he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense all combined.”
But Bush, standing a few feet away on a debate stage at the University of Massachusetts, said Gore’s economic plan would offer relief only to the middle class. “Everybody who pays taxes ought to get relief,” he said. At the same time, he said, it would produce “dramatically” bigger government with 200 “new or expanded programs” and 20,000 new bureaucrats.
“It empowers Washington,” added the governor, who hastened to tell a national viewing audience he was from West Texas – not the nation’s capital. Over and over, he accused Gore of “fuzzy math.”
Gore and Bush met for the first of three presidential debates over the next two weeks, each man seeking advantage in a race so close that poll after poll shows them within a point or two of one another. Their vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joseph Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney, debate Thursday in Kentucky.
Jim Lehrer of PBS was moderator, operating under strict rules negotiated in advance by the Gore and Bush camps. It was, he said at the outset, the first of three 90-minute debates between the two major party rivals – a format that excluded Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, running as minor party candidates.
In a reprise of his acceptance speech at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, Gore said it was important to stand up to the special interests, pharmaceutical companies among them. “Big drug companies support Governor Bush’s prescription drug proposal,” he said. “They oppose mine.”
Bush made a sour face when he heard that, and in his next breath offered a swift rebuttal.
“I’ve been standing up to Big Hollywood and Big Trial Lawyers,” he shot back, mentioning two groups that have lavished campaign donations on Gore and Democrats.
The two men argued at length over prescription drugs for Medicare recipients, a key issue, particularly in the key battleground states of the Midwest. Bush blamed Washington for failing to pass legislation, and touted his own plan to have states offer benefits. “You’ve had your chance, Mr. Vice President,” the governor said.
But Gore, who favors a prescription drug benefit available to all Medicare recipients, said that under Bush’s plan only low-income seniors would receive immediate help. Everyone else would have to wait up to four years, he said. In addition, he added, seniors could be forced into HMOs to get a prescription drug benefit.
“I cannot let this go by, the old-style Washington politics, trying to scare you with phony numbers,” Bush swiftly replied. He accused Gore of “Medi-scare.”
“This is a man who has great numbers,” he said of the vice president. “I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, he invented the calculator.”
Asked about a recent FDA decision approving the use of the abortion pill RU-486, Bush said, “I don’t think a president can” overturn such a decision. He then restated his willingness to sign legislation banning so-called “partial birth abortions,” and said Gore wouldn’t.
Gore said he would ban such late-term procedures, but only if it included exemptions to protect the life or health of the woman, the position Clinton has taken in vetoing two bills on the subject from the Republican-controlled Congress.
Eager to regain the offensive on a volatile issue, Gore said Bush would appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn a 1973 ruling that legalized a right to abortion. “I support a woman’s right to choose. My opponent does not.”
Bush said he was “pro-life,” but disputed any suggestion that he would use the issue as a litmus test for appointments to the high court.
Gore sighed audibly when Bush said that, as if to register disbelief.
On the first foreign policy issue to come up, Gore and Bush agreed they would not use force to try and remove Slobodan Milosevic from power in Yugoslavia, even though they agreed he had been defeated in recent elections and should give up power.
Asked about energy policy, Gore attacked Bush for proposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Area.
Bush said such domestic oil exploration was preferable to continuing to import a million barrels of oil a day from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
To keep the candidates cool, university officials turned the thermostat inside the Clark Athletic Center gym well below 65 degrees. That’s the show-time temperature, once the lights were flipped on and seats filled, that was required under contract by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The bipartisan group is sponsoring all four debates with the idea that they will be shown on as many TV networks as possible. Most were carrying the first one, but NBC gave its affiliates a choice between the baseball playoffs and the debate, while FOX went with its series premiere of “Dark Angel.”