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Approaching ‘Super-Tuesday’: Yet no breakthroughs

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October 13, 2000 


WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (AP) - George W. Bush held his own on foreign policy, his weakest issue, and mangled his words just once. Al Gore wasn't condescending and apologized for past embellishments.

In their mostly polite debate Wednesday night, both presidential candidates sought to fix and overcome perceived weaknesses in style and substance.

And while debate professionals tended to give the bout to Gore, quick polls conducted after the second presidential faceoff showed that voters generally gave Bush the edge.

There were no knockout punches in the debate on the campus of Wake Forest University. Analysts suggested that those who supported Bush before continue to support him; and likewise with Gore supporters.

That leaves a relatively small, but significant, band of undecided voters - with fewer than four weeks to go.

"I thought that Bush did well. So did the vice president. But Gore didn't do well enough to overcome what he lost by his behavior in the first debate," said Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University.

In the first debate, Gore wrongly asserted that he had traveled to Texas with the head of a federal agency to inspect flood and fire damage. The Democratic Party candidate also overstated the plight of a 15-year-old Florida girl he said was forced to stand in an overcrowded classroom.

The misstatements allowed Republicans to wage a weeklong assault on Gore's credibility

"I got some of the details wrong," Gore conceded. "I'm sorry about that and I'm going to try to do better."

Bush for the most part did not go after Gore on the credibility issue until he was asked about it at the end of the debate by host Jim Lehrer. Then, he said he believed it was fair game as an issue.

He had been leaving most of the assault on Gore's integrity to others. His Republican Party strategists had not wanted Bush to appear too negative - for fear of turning off voters.

In fact, at one point Bush observed, "It seems like we're having a great love fest now."

Instant surveys after the debate by ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and CNN-USA Today-Gallup showed that viewers believe Bush did better in the debate.

Five high school and college debating coaches, judging the contest for The Associated Press, split 4-1 in calling Gore the winner.

Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential debates and speeches at Washington University in St. Louis - site of next Tuesday's concluding debate - said he thought Gore did better, "but Gore had the most to gain."

"Gore demonstrated self-control," he said. He suggested many undecided voters "have their minds almost made up" but are waiting for the third debate for a final decision.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a focus group session during the debate for MSNBC, said in an interview that while his group was generally evenly divided on who won, Bush scored high on foreign policy issues.

"I clearly believe that Bush exceeded expectations on foreign policy. This is one of Gore's strengths," Luntz said.

Bush at times seemed a little shaky on foreign policy, but he was able to discuss tensions in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, his views on Saddam Hussein and his skepticism toward overseas military deployments

While insisting U.S. forces are overextended, he struggled to provide specifics on which troops he would bring home, mentioning those in the Balkans and Haiti.

But he wouldn't set a timetable for the Balkans. And, actually, the Clinton administration brought nearly all U.S. troops home from Haiti earlier this year.

Bush, who has a reputation for verbal flubs when he's tired or stressed, got through the 90-minute session with few such problems.

Bush poked fun at himself. "I've been known to mangle a sil-lable," he said.

Bush had sought to demonstrate a command of details, particularly on foreign policy. Gore, in turn, had sought to be less condescending and to not be caught in any embellishment of facts.

By those standards, supporters of both candidates were happy.

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