Bush and Gore Strike Sparks in First Debate

Al Gore and George W. Bush have clashed in the first presidential debate, ranging on issues from prescription drugs to the campaign finance scandals. But who won?

ABCNEWS.com BOSTON, Oct. 4 — Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore sparred over the issues in their first

debate, contrasting their visions for the future as they picked apart one another’s chief policy proposals.

Bush painted the vice president as a man who would create “a big, exploding federal government.” Gore, sighing loudly at Bush’s points and occasionally shaking his head and smiling, cast his rival as likely to bust the budget with his $1.3 trillion tax cut.

With the polls deadlocked and tensions running high between their campaigns, Bush and Gore largely stuck to substance and avoided personal attacks in Tuesday night’s event.

But the Texas governor, answering a question from debate moderator Jim Lehrer about character, said he was disappointed in Gore’s involvement in the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandals, particularly his attendance at a Buddhist temple event that has been investigated by the Justice Department.

“I felt like there needed to be a better sense of responsibility of what was going on in the White House,” Bush said in a twist on his oft-repeated pledge to ring in a a new “responsibility era” in the nation. “They’ve moved the sign ‘The buck stops here’ from the Oval Office to ‘The buck stops here’ on the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Gore deflected the criticism. “You may want to focus on scandals, I want to focus on results,” Gore responded.

Gore then turned that into a challenge for Bush to support campaign finance reform.

“This current campaign financing system has not reflected credit on anybody in either party,” Gore said.

Bush scoffed at the suggestion, seeming to think the vice president was referring to an earlier Gore challenge for him to stop spending unregulated “soft money” donations, saying, “I am not going to lay down my arms in the middle of a campaign for somebody who has no credibility on the issue.”

American Experience

Lehrer opened the debate by giving Gore a chance to skewer Bush, asking him why he had cast doubt on the Texas governor’s experience.

“I have actually not questioned Gov. Bush’s experience, I have questioned his proposals,” Gore said before rattling off a list of his own policy initiatives.

Pressed to explain past comments on Bush’s tax cut proposal that seemed to indicate he had, in fact, questioned the Texas governor’s experience, Gore said, “I said his tax cut plan raises the question of whether it’s the right choice for the country.”

For his part, Bush wore the lack of experience inside the Beltway as a badge of honor.

“Look, I fully recognize I’m not of Washington. I’m from Texas. And he’s got a lot of experience, but so do I. And I’ve been the chief executive officer of the second-biggest state in the union.”

But Bush said Gore’s chief experience has been failing to fulfill campaign promises, repeatedly campaigning to expand access to prescription drugs and reform Medicare yet failing in eight years in office to solve those problems.

“You’ve had your chance, Mr. Vice President,” Bush said. “You’ve been there for eight years and nothing has been done.” He also repeatedly characterized Gore’s blizzard of numbers regarding tax cuts and health care as “fuzzy math.”

Clash on Abortion, RU-486

Bush said he wouldn’t overturn the FDA’s recent decision to allow the sale of abortion pill, RU-486.

“I don’t think a president can do that,” Bush said, going on to vow he would ban late-term abortions and “promote a culture of life in America.”

Reiterating his support for the abortion drug and saying he also would sign a ban on late-term abortions, the vice president said the main issue was the Supreme Court. Bush would appoint justices who oppose abortion rights while, Gore said, he would appoint those who support a woman’s right to an abortion.

“Here’s the difference: He trusts the government to order a woman to do what he thinks she ought to do,” Gore said. “I trust women to make the decisions that affect their lives, their destinies and their bodies.”

Military Readiness

Bush mostly avoided the sort of fumbles his campaign had been hoping he would avoid. But the Texas governor, who has made rebuilding the military one of his top priorities, lost his footing somewhat when asked about his criteria for sending U.S. troops overseas.

“If it’s in our vital national interest, and that means whether or not our territory, our people, could be harmed,” Bush said, “whether or not our alliances, our alliances are threatened, whether or not our friends in the Middle East are threatened. That would be a time to seriously consider use of force.”

Asked whether the United States should consider the use of force to remove Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic if necessary, both candidates answered, “no.”

But Bush suggested the United States encourage Russia to mediate a solution, prompting Gore to caution that Russia has traditionally supported the Milosevic government.

“We need to be very careful in the present situation before we invite the Russians to play the lead role in mediating,” Gore said.

“Well, obviously we wouldn’t use the Russians if they didn’t agree with our answer,” Bush said with a laugh.

“Well, they don’t,” Gore shot back.

High Stakes

The latest ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll shows Gore leading Bush 48 percent to 46 percent — a virtual tie given the survey’s three-point error margin. In an ABCNEWS telephone poll of 491 registered voters who watched the debate, 42 percent said Gore won, 39 percent said Bush was the victor, and 13 percent called it a tie. However, the difference is within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 points.

The next two debates, also moderated by Lehrer, will have a more “free-flowing” style that Bush lobbied for. One will feature the candidates seated with Lehrer at a table, and the other will be a town hall-style meeting with questions from the audience.

Those debates will take place Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. The vice-presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney, will face off Thursday in Danville, Ky.

After watching his running mate debate Tuesday night, from a Rib House in battleground Ohio, Cheney came out to greet the crowd in the bar.

“He did a hell of a job, didn’t he,” Cheney asked the cheering crowd.

One man in the audience yelled, “Big time!”

Cheney echoed the sentiment, resurrecting a line that won him headlines and notoriety with late-night talk show hosts after he was overheard seconding his running mate’s vulgar assessment of a New York Times reporter on Labor.

“Big time,” Cheney roared.

Both Bush and Gore hoped to ride fresh momentum into key battleground states Wednesday, with Gore headed to Ohio and Bush to Pennsylvania and Ohio.

ABCNEWS’ John Berman, Dana Hill, Dean Reynolds and Terry Moran contributed to this report.