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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: Gore finally hits his stride

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's no coincidence that the Yankees won the American League pennant the same night Al Gore won the third debate. In both cases, the world champions finally showed their stuff.

Actually, Gore didn't just win Tuesday night's encounter. He owned it from the very beginning: taking charge, challenging every assertion made by his opponent, breaking the rules where necessary, making his points clearly and forcefully.

From Democrats around the country, there were audible sighs of relief. He's back, they said. The old, aggressive Al Gore we knew is back. He didn't have a lobotomy, after all


And they're right. If Gore had performed as well in the first two debates, this campaign would have been over a long time ago.

George Bush, by contrast, appeared tentative, if not somnolent: unsure of himself and the issues. Instead of responding to many of Gore's jabs, he sat there like a bump on a log. Or, worse yet, he whined to moderator Jim Lehrer about having to answer Gore's direct questions. He didn't even belong on the same stage.

Unfortunately for Bush, this third and final debate underscored both the prime ingredient for the presidency and the major difference between the two candidates: experience. Gore has it, and Bush does not.

Bush's lack of experience has long been his Achilles' heel, but it was never so apparent -- because Gore never made it apparent. That changed Tuesday night.

By repeatedly pushing him on specifics, Gore exposed Bush for what he really is: a phony. A man who can cram for a final exam, or debate, but still not understand the issues. A candidate who can talk generalities, in the most annoying monotone, but just can't grasp the details. Someone who pretends to be what he is not.

Bush claimed to support a national patients' bill of rights, but when Gore pressed him on whether he backed the stronger version, the Dingell-Norwood legislation backed by consumer groups, and not the weaker bill endorsed by drug companies, the governor complained about "this kind of Washington, D.C., focus, it's in this committee, or it's got this sponsor" -- as if it makes no difference. It does. Bush just doesn't get it.

Bush claimed to support something called "affirmative access", but said he could never support affirmative action because he was against numerical quotas. When Gore correctly pointed out that argument was a red herring, because quotas were no longer legal. "Do you support affirmative action, as approved by the Supreme Court?", Gore asked. Instead of answering, Bush complained to Lehrer that Gore was breaking the rules.

But nowhere is Bush's lack of experience more obvious, nor more critical, than on foreign policy. Especially when contrasted with Gore. Asked what would qualify him to resolve the conflict in the Middle East, Gore rattled off an impressive string of accomplishments and experience -- from volunteering to serve in Vietnam to helping hammer together the most recent Middle East peace summit.

Bush bragged: "I've been a leader." Meaning: he's been governor of Texas, since that is his only record of public service. He's lucky the audience didn't break out laughing.

As governor, Bush has zero foreign policy experience, except for occasional, perfunctory meetings with Mexican officials, standard fare for any border state governor, but surely no preparation for brokering a tough agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Even on issues he did deal with as governor, Bush inflates his record. Tuesday night, he claimed he had brought Republicans and Democrats together to enact the Texas version of a patients bill of rights. Not true. The first year the Texas Legislature passed a patients bill of rights, Bush vetoed it. The next year, he did nothing to support the bill, even opposed several provisions -- and finally let the bill become law without his signature. His belated claim of fathership for the measure is just another Texan tall tale.

Normally, the third presidential debate doesn't mean much because voters have already made up their minds. But, with such a tight race, and so many undecided voters, this year's experience could prove decisive indeed. Tuesday's debate left no doubt. Al Gore is qualified and ready to become president. George W. Bush is not. Let the voters decide.



Wednesday, October 18, 2000


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