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Who Won the First Presidential Debate?

Aired October 4, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Live from the George Washington University, a special edition of CROSSFIRE. Tonight, debating the debate. Was there a clear winner? With a Gore supporter and a Bush supporter, Mary and me, and a live studio audience.


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Gore supporter, and Haley Barbour, former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to the Bush campaign.


PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE, live again from the George Washington University, as if you couldn't tell. They bobbed, they weaved, they huffed, they puffed, they defended their programs, and they attacked the other guys. Gore said a Bush Supreme Court would mean the end of Roe v. Wade; Bush said a Gore administration would mean more IRS agents and higher taxes. But in the end, did either Al Gore or George Bush walk off the stage a clear winner, and did they win over any undecided voters? That's our debate tonight.

Mary, take it away.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Senator, one of the tactics employed by both candidates last night was to tell personal stories so you could get to know them better. So I want to go over some of Gore's stories with you.

In response to Governor Bush talking about the tragic fires in Parker County, Texas, and Del Rio in '96 and '98, Vice President Gore had this to say.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First, I want to compliment the governor on his response to those fires and floods in Texas. I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MATALIN: He did not accompany James Lee Witt in '96 or '98. He never toured any of the fire zones. He did get a briefing in the pilots lounge at the airport when he went down to campaign for Governor Bush's opponent.

Another story the vice president told with great effect last night -- it was a very moving one -- about a Sarasota -- Sarasota high school student, who was in such a crowded that she could not, did not have a desk to sit in, had to stand in class, about which her principal this morning, Daniel Kennedy, said that the story was, quote -- his words, not mine -- "completely not true. There are more desks than kids."

And he went on to say, quote: "I think it's unfortunate that someone at the vice president's staff didn't take the time to call the school and check on the fact. It's pretty misleading when you give that kind of false information national attention."

Now, right out of the box the vice president was asked by Jim Lehrer why he questioned Governor Bush's experience, and he said, quote: "I have actually not questioned George Bush's experience." Here's the original "New York Times" story that Jim Lehrer was talking about in which he says three times: "You just have to wonder whether he has the experience to be president. Does Governor Bush have the experience to be president?"

Have we seen -- have we not seen this kind of compulsive behavior in the leader of the free world, and don't we understand the dangerous ramifications of somebody who just can't help themselves from making up stories?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: That's about half the show, Mary. Was that one question?

PRESS: Yes, it's a speech, not a question. It's a speech.

MATALIN: You know what? I barely scratched the surface.

DURBIN: Let me just say that, if I remember, Vice President Gore said that the young lady, young girl's father came to him and told him this story about the classroom situation. I can't talk about whether he was at a disaster in Texas. I can tell you that he was with me in 1993 when there was a flood on the Mississippi River, which inundated all of downstate Illinois. He was there with James Lee Witt and FEMA. So perhaps there was some misstatements, inaccuracy on that.

But I don't think that that -- you draw a conclusion from one misstatement that a person is unqualified for office. Would you put Mr. Bush up to that test? One misstatement to hold him unqualified for office?

MATALIN: I'm not talking about misstatements, senator. You know exactly what I'm talking about. This follows on the heel of everything from "Love Story" to dogs and mother-in-laws. There's a pattern here.

DURBIN: There's a conspiracy, right?

MATALIN: No, there's not a conspiracy. It's a pattern.

DURBIN: No, I don't think there is. What you have are men running for office under extreme pressure, George Bush and Al Gore, who occasionally slip up. Haven't we all? I bet you have on this show once or twice.

PRESS: Haley Barbour, let me...

HALEY BARBOUR, BUSH ADVISER: Well, you know, it's a thing -- it's a thing where in a debate, if you can make up these fairy tales to carry your story, that's the thing -- that these are like fables.

The problem is it was told to the American people as if it was the truth, and it wasn't the truth. You know, I've met James Lee Witt, I've been to Texas. And if I went out and said, James Lee and I went down to Texas, and we really worked on these fires, it would be totally made up though the two parts of it are true.

But these are fables that are designed to give him an advantage in the debates.

PRESS: Let me just say this, Haley: If you were vice president for eight years and you were probably out in the field with James Lee Witt 100 times, you might get one wrong. You might just get one -- even a man as intelligent as you.

Let me move on, please. I want to move on.

BARBOUR: Bill, but let's don't pretend that this is an isolated example.

PRESS: I want to move on because I think that's a nonsense issue. Two weeks ago...

BARBOUR: I guess you do. Not telling the truth is something that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) talk about.

PRESS: Two -- please, please. Two weeks ago, George W. Bush said I'm going -- no more attacks on character. From now on, we're going to talk about issues, and he just can't help himself, Haley, because last night he gets in the debate, and what does he do? He attacks again. He goes to the Lincoln Bedroom. He goes to the Buddhist temple. I mean, this guy just can't help himself.

Why does he always have to engage in the politics of personal destruction? Why can't he stay on the issues?

BARBOUR: Well, the question he was asked by Jim Lehrer was exactly that. He got asked a direct question about Gore's character. Does it matter? What does he think?

What was he supposed to say? I think it's OK to go out and tell the people there's no controlling legal authority? I think it's OK to say, well, I wasn't in the room, I must have gone on an ice-tea break, and to have a chief of staff of the White House come back and say, no, that that's not true?

I mean, he got asked a direct question. He didn't inject that into the debate. Jim Lehrer asked him.

Is he supposed to pretend that he doesn't think the president should be an example that the American people can look up to?

PRESS: Let me just say that you know better than anybody, Haley, that just because you're asked a question by a reporter or a talk-show host or a CROSSFIRE co-host doesn't mean you have to answer it. Here's what he might have said. He might have said, let's get back to the issues. Here's what Al Gore said. Let me just remind you what Al Gore said when this exchange came up.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, Governor Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility, and I am not going to respond in kind. I think we ought to focus on the problems and not attack each other.


PRESS: Don't you think the American people are tired of politicians attacking each other?

BARBOUR: You know, Bill, what could be sillier than you saying that Bush should have ducked the question. He got asked a direct question. That's not CROSSFIRE.

And you know, one of the things that I thought was good, George Bush didn't act like it was CROSSFIRE. He was civil. He was plain- talking...

PRESS: Civil?

BARBOUR: ... straightforward. He didn't try to go out and start scraps. He didn't try to -- he didn't try to interrupt Gore. You know, he didn't sniff and sort and sigh and groan.

PRESS: Oh, yes, he did. Oh, yes, he did.

BARBOUR: He didn't make any comments.



He didn't make any comments. He had a runny nose, but he didn't make any commentary. When Bush would give an answer, the audience would hear Gore going, oh, umm, uhh.



Well, look, we play by the rules. The American...

PRESS: If we show all the video -- if we showed all the video from George Bush snorting last night, it would take up the rest of the show.

BARBOUR: Well, you know...

MATALIN: You know what? You know what -- let me jump in here, Haley, because George Bush did have a cold.

PRESS: I didn't raise that issue; he did.

MATALIN: Gore was clearly -- Senator Gore was clearly employing a tactic, which I've seen used by a lot Democrats, not the least of which is my husband and this guy over here, where he was trying to distract the opponent.

You disbelieve this? Let's watch just a short montage of what went on for 90 minutes last night.


BUSH: I've had a record of appointing judges in the state of Texas.


That's what a governor gets to do.



BUSH: The man's practicing fuzzy math again. There's differences.




BUSH: There is no new accountability measures in Vice President Gore's plan.


He says he's for voluntary testing. You can't have...



MATALIN: OK, senator -- senator...


MATALIN: I'm serious. Let me ask the question. Even on -- this was a night he was supposed to be on his best behavior. He can't even discipline himself. He was not just rude to George Bush. It was an insult to the voters.

DURBIN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Here we have a debate between the two presidential candidates speaking for an hour and a half about the important issues facing the American people. You've got Al Gore messing up on one or two facts and maybe audible breathing...


... and you won't even address the whole question of George Bush's plan for a tax break for the wealthiest 1 percent of America. You don't want to talk about that tonight.

MATALIN: I'd love talking about that.

DURBIN: You don't want to talk about what he's going to do Social Security.

MATALIN: Let's talk about that.

DURBIN: You don't want to talk about what he proposes for education. All of the things you want to talk about are audible breathing. What has the Republican Party become?


MATALIN: You know -- you know what? You know what? All right, I think that kind of behavior does a disservice to these kids, who are finding you interesting and are displaying their bias once again. It was rude to the candidate. It was rude to the people of these United States. It points out a kind of character in this man that's important to know, and that was one of the things they were trying to do last night, both the candidates.

DURBIN: The only personal attack came from your candidate, whether it was invited or not, and to suggest that there was no rudeness involved in that but was involved in audible breathing, that's a stretch.


BARBOUR: Well, look...

MATALIN: Haley, unfortunately, we have to go to break.


Did last night's debate change your opinion of the candidates? That's our online poll tonight. Log on to, cast your vote. We'll have the results later, and we'll be right back with even tougher questions from our live audience at George Washington University.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE, live from the George Washington University. The post-presidential debate spin has been as heated as the main event. Bill and I have had our chance to take on tonight's guests. Now it's the audience's turn. So get your toughest questions ready for the former RNC chairman, Haley Barbour, a Bush adviser, and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Gore supporter -- Bill.

PRESS: All right, now to questions from our studio audience, our student. No softballs, please. First question for Chairman Barbour From Vic, of Queensbury, New York.

Hi, Vic.

VIC: Hello. Good evening.

Over the past few months, we have seen both candidates display exaggerations in their -- in both of their campaigns. And you might remember, at the Democratic National Convention that Gore and Tipper had quite a moment on stage -- as well as Governor Bush's trying to display his fluency in Spanish. Whether or not he's really fluent or not, I'm not sure. But he's definitely been making extreme efforts at the Hispanic population in America.

PRESS: Question, please.

VIC: What I want to know -- of course, right away.

BARBOUR: We are supposed to filibuster, Vic.

VIC: What I want to know, basically, is: When are these extreme politics going to end and representations of what would be true leadership begin?

BARBOUR: Well, I thought last night Governor Bush did exactly the right thing by being plain-spoken and straight-talking and not gilding the lily. He tried to answer the question. When Lehrer asked him a question, be tried to be responsive. He tried to not get into scraps with Gore. He tried to just say: Here's what I'm for. Here's why I'm for it.

And I think it was the right strategy for him. I think it helped him, where I think the way Vice President Gore talked and talked and talked and talked hurt Vice President Gore. So I think Bush was in tune last night with kind of your view of this.

MATALIN: All right, let's move into a target state, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania for Senator Durbin. This is Steven.

STEVEN: Hello, Senator Durbin. As a young member of Congress, Vice President Gore was pro-life and he was also pro-NRA. He has changed his mind now. Can we be confident -- and can undecided voters be confident -- that he won't change his mind on such critical issues? DURBIN: Abraham Lincoln was once accused of having switched a position and changed his mind. And he said, "I would rather be right some of the time than wrong all the time." And I think in the course of human experience, you come to understand issues from a different perspective.

I think most people who have been involved in public life try to be open to new ideas and new information. I think Al Gore, on the issue of gun safety and opposing the National Rifle Association has been consistent for years -- and certainly as vice president. And last night, he was very clear on the answer about his position on choice.

I don't think the same can be said of Governor Bush. Some of the things he said on the campaign trail about RU-486, he didn't back up last night in his response to that question.

PRESS: OK. Thank you. Then we'll go...


PRESS: Quickly.

BARBOUR: Governor Bush was exactly consistent on RU-486. He said, "I'm not for it, but I don't think you can make the FDA take it back." I think that is the law.

DURBIN: I think he said something the opposite just a day or two before.

PRESS: Yes, our next questioner: Adam. Adam has got a question for Chairman Barbour from Cleveland, Ohio.

Hi, Adam.


Mr. Barbour, Governor Bush made several attacks on Vice President Gore's inability to get through his legislative program over the past eight years. Isn't that charge a little unfair considering that it has been the Republican Congress that's been shooting down most of that legislation, and it's not actually the fault of the White House and Vice President Gore?


BARBOUR: Yes, I think one of the points -- I think one of the points that Governor Bush made -- and made very effectively -- is a difference between him and Gore is that in Texas, he has had a Democrat legislature much of the time. When he first was elected governor, a Democrat legislature passed his program.

We have to have a situation in Washington where everything isn't partisan politics, where you have to be willing to reach out to the Dick Durbins if you're a Republican president. You have to be willing to work with the Republicans if you're a Democrat president. And that's been missing in '90s. We have the most poisonous, partisan atmosphere here since I've been around Washington -- which, unfortunately, is a pretty long time.

I think Bush spoke very much to what the American people want. The American people think they deserve better than for everything to be partisan politics. They're right.



DURBIN: But if you think that Newt Gingrich was a lamb lying down with lions, I don't think so.

MATALIN: All right, let's go to yet another target state, a traditionally Republican -- or Democratic state, but now a toss-up: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is Laura for you, Senator Durbin.

LAURA: Hi, Senator Durbin. I was just wondering how you could dismiss the issue of character when clearly we did that in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected and it became a key part of both of his terms. His character was discredited. So I was wondering why you don't think that we should be paying attention to that in this election when clearly it sort of upset Bill Clinton's two terms?

DURBIN: We shouldn't -- we shouldn't have...

(APPLAUSE) DURBIN: There is no reason why we should dismiss the issue of character. It's very important in public life and virtually every calling, every profession. But take a look, as Al Gore has said, at Al Gore. You know, the Bush campaign may have been doing pretty well when it was running against Clinton-Gore, but now it's running against Al Gore.

This is a man who has his own story to tell, a man who has done some amazing things in his life for himself and his family. I think if the issue of character is in play here, that we have a candidate on the Democratic side that we are proud of. And I think he should be judged on his own merits.

PRESS: All right, we have a very unusual person here: a college student from -- in Washington, D.C. from Washington, D.C. This is Bridgette, Chairman Barbour.

BRIDGETTE: Hi, I just wanted to know if you were in support or opposition of improving the public education system in the U.S., or providing public funding for students to attend private schools or parochial schools, such as vouchers.


BARBOUR: Yes, well, I think both of these candidates want to improve public education. They just differ very greatly on how. George Bush thinks if we give more control over education to parents and teachers and local school boards, they will do better at managing our children's educations than the Washington bureaucrats and the national labor unions.

Bush thinks that we need to give flexibility to the schools to spend federal aid for what they needed. Gore says we need a 100,000 school teachers. Well, the schools may need school buses or school books. Or they may need computers and teach the school teachers how to teach the kids to use them.

But the people in Washington, D.C. don't know what's best for California or Illinois, and Bush thinks we ought to make the people in the states and localities accountable for the outcome and to work hard on accountability, but give them the flexibility to decide what's best for their kids.


DURBIN: Until two weeks ago -- until two weeks ago, both the Republican Party and the Bush campaign would kick off the answer to that question by saying: We're for vouchers; even though 90 percent of the kids go to public schools, we think that public funds should go to private schools without accountability on the students that they enroll and accountability on the standards that they hold. But now vouchers are off the table. We don't talk about them on the Republican side anymore. But it's been part of the credo of the Republican Party, and I don't think George Bush can run away with it -- run away from it.

PRESS: But they're still for them, they just don't use the word.

BARBOUR: Sure, we're for vouchers. I mean, George Bush is very plain. We're going to hold schools accountable, and if they fail our children, we're going give the parents of those children the opportunity to take that government money and spend it somewhere else. You know..

DURBIN: Where?

BARBOUR: ... in private schools, Catholic schools...

DURBIN: By what standards?

BARBOUR: By the standards that the parents decide, just like if they decide they want to send their kids to Notre Dame instead of the University of Indiana.

DURBIN: And there are a lot of schools that...

BARBOUR: The parents ought to decide that and the federal government..

DURBIN: ... you and I both know that ...

PRESS: We'll do another show on vouchers, we promise. We have another question here right now -- Mary.

MATALIN: It's called parental choice. Let's go to Senator Lieberman's home state, Richfield, Connecticut.

This is Daniel for you, Senator Durbin.

DANIEL: Senator Durbin, a lot of people all over the country are a little concerned right now that perhaps the Gore-Lieberman campaign would be very pro-Israel, and to be honest with you, I've sat for 20 minutes and I haven't heard anything yet about what's going on right now within the state of Israel. Tell me what you think about whether Gore-Lieberman will be or won't be pro-Israel and even what's going on there right now and what you expect in the future.

DURBIN: I don't think there's any doubt about it in terms of the commitment of Al Gore as vice president and certainly Joe Lieberman as one of my colleagues in the Senate, certainly committed to the future of Israel. We're in a perilous situation here. President Clinton tried to initiate peace negotiations, it broke down.

He's considered -- he's tried everything he can in the last few months of his presidency to get it done, and now with the violence in the Middle East, we're all very concerned about it. I think whoever is president that Israel will be high on the foreign policy list.

PRESS: All right. I'm sorry we are out of time there. We just -- and I'd love to get your answer, too, Haley, but we've run out of time and all of these other people wanted to ask questions. So we'll have to have you back. And we'll come back to GW, too, for that.

Chairman Haley Barbour, thank you. Senator Dick Durbin, thank you. Mary Matalin and I will wrap things up with our closing comments. I'll bet you can't wait. We'll be right back.



MATALIN: Now for the results of our online poll. We asked you whether last night's debate changed your opinion of the candidates. Seventy-seven percent of you said no, 23 percent of you said yes. And you can continue the CROSSFIRE online tonight. Bush adviser Haley Barbour will be in our chatroom right after the show, then Todd Webster of the Gore campaign take your questions. The address,

You know, they keep talking, the Gore people, about he has his own story to tell. The problem with him is he has too many stories that he's just making up.


MATALIN: You know what, and it's not a mistake. It's not nervousness,

PRESS: I did it one purpose.

MATALIN: It's just silliness. Well, duh. It's supposed to be a serious debate. It was rude to everybody. And I'll say again, it's a pattern. Let me just say -- this is not from me or Bush. This is from Bill Bradley, who said in the primaries, if you can't believe what he says as a candidate, how can you trust him as president?

PRESS: Let me just say something, Mary. You know the problem with last night?


PRESS: The problem with last night -- the problem with last night was it wasn't the "Oprah" show for George Bush, so he couldn't talk about his favorite snack food...


... and on the issues, on choice and the environment -- choice and environment and Social Security and Medicare and prescription drugs, Gore was right there on the issues and Bush looked like a deer caught between the headlights.

MATALIN: That is so not true. That is -- you can...

PRESS: Out of left. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: You saw it with your own eyes. You know that was a distortion. From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow from George Washington University once again for...




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