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Press Bill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN during the election season.

Bill Press: The double debate disappointment

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What a double disapppointment.

George W. Bush didn't faint, drool, forget his name or cry for for his mommy. Instead, he stood and gave as well as he got.

Al Gore didn't stab, bludgeon, hammer or attack Bush with the stuffed shark he brought especially from Florida. Instead, he refused to get personal and stuck to the issues.

So much for advance expectations of Tuesday's first presidential debate. It turned out to be not, as many pundits predicted, a one-sided brawl between a poodle and a pit bull, but an in-depth discussion between two serious candidates -- and a valuable tool for those voters still undecided.

For the first time, both candidates were forced to go beyond the brazen boasts and cheap shots of the campaign trail and defend their proposals in detail, albeit sometimes dizzying detail. For the first time, millions of Americans heard the differences between them.

There was no knockout punch, no major gaffe, no memorable line for the history books. And neither candidate came off warm and cuddly. Gore acted too much like a smarty pants; Bush was too snide. By the time the debate was over, we were glad to get rid of both of them.

If the goal was simply to stay on stage and not make a fool of himself, Bush won. If the goal was to display a mastery of the issues, a superiority of ideas and a readiness to walk right into the oval office, Gore won.

On tax cuts, in his first sentence of the debate, Gore exposed Bush's plan as welfare for the rich. "He would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the new spending that he proposes for education, prescription drugs and national defense, all combined."

Beyond lamely accusing Gore of "fuzzy numbers", Bush never denied the charge. He couldn't, because it's true. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, 43 percent or $665 billion - of Bush's tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent. Bush should simply admit it.

On energy, Gore stressed development of alternative, clean sources of energy and slammed Bush's proposal to allow oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge because it would take too long, produce too little oil and destroy a national environmental treasure. Bush, calling himself a "small oil man", insisted more drilling was the only way to free ourselves from dependence on Saddam Hussein, perhaps forgetting it was his father and his running mate Dick Cheney who left Hussein in power.

On prescription drugs, Bush proposed giving seniors a choice on how to obtain drug coverage. Gore countered that the only choice Bush offered was dealing with obstinate insurance companies. The cheaper, more direct solution is to make prescription drug coverage part of Medicare, Gore argued. He's right. The AARP agrees.

Even with the wrong answers, Bush held his own on most issues. But on abortion, he was clearly rattled. He promised not to overrule the FDA's approval of RU 486, the abortion drug, but refused to say whether he would sign legislation blocking its distribution. He claimed he would not apply a litmus test to future Supreme Court nominees, but repeated his admiration for Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. As Gore correctly observed, that means bye-bye, Roe v. Wade. On choice, at least, there is a clear choice between the two candidates.

Bush's big mistake was sinking into the gutter. No matter how many times he calls himself a different kind of Republican or promises to stick to the issues, he can't refrain from personal attacks. Tuesday night, he again accused Gore of making illegal phone calls from the White House and raising illegal funds at a Buddhist Temple.

Gore refused to take the bait. Instead of pointing out he'd been endlessly investigated and cleared of those charges, he took the high road. "You may want to focus on scandals, I want to focus on results," he told Bush - effectively reducing him to the small, desperate, losing candidate he is.

At best, Tuesday was a narrow win for Gore. At worst, it was a draw. Either way, Bush loses.

Where do Bush and Gore stand on issues of importance to Europe? Launch our Interactive Guide.

View the latest tracking poll or dig into our poll archives.


Watch selected policy speeches and campaign commercials from the major presidential candidates.

See where George W. Bush and Al Gore stand on the major issues.

Who are your elected officials? What is the past presidential vote and number of electoral votes in your state? What are the presidential primary results and exit polls? Find out with these state political and election facts.

Get Election 2000 zip code searchable candidate biographies and other material for races for governor, Senate and House in our Election Guide.

How much money have the candidates raised? Here are their quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission.

If you need to know who's up in 2000 and what seats are open, launch this quick guide.

WEB WHITE AND BLUE is a partner in the Web White and Blue rolling cyber-debate, a daily online exchange among the major presidential candidates. Look for twice-daily updates Sunday through Friday until election day.


Wednesday, October 4, 2000


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