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U.S.: Debate Of Presidential Candidates Is Key In Close Race

The two leading candidates for the U.S. presidency held the first of their televised debates Tuesday night. The race between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore is considered very close, and election day is only a month away. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with political analysts who say these debates could determine who will be the next American president.

Washington, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The race for the American presidency entered its most crucial stage Tuesday night with the first debate between the two leading candidates -- George W. Bush, the governor of the large state of Texas, and Vice President Al Gore.

There is little more than a month to go before the November 7 election, and public opinion polls show the candidates with about equal popular support. So how they impress the voters will be important.

Bush, of the Republican Party, and Gore, a Democrat, spent virtually all of Tuesday night's exchange discussing issues of importance only to U.S. voters. They debated policy on education, health care, and taxation -- and even how a president can help improve a nation's moral climate.

On domestic issues, each man gave a distinct definition of how he would govern. Both referred to the enormous surplus in the U.S. Treasury, thanks to the nation's robust economy and -- as a result -- enormous tax revenues.

Gore spoke of improved government programs to help all people, rather than reducing taxes as much as Bush proposes.

"I believe it's important to resist the temptation to squander our surplus. If we make the right choices, we can have a prosperity that endures and enriches all of our people."

Bush says his tax-reduction proposal would give Americans the freedom to use the extra money as they see fit.

"It [Gore's plan] empowers Washington [the federal government], and tonight you're going to hear that my passion and my vision is to empower Americans to make decisions for themselves in their own lives."

Domestic issues dominated the debate, but one issue on foreign affairs was addressed. The candidates were asked how they would react, as president, if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to acknowledge the apparent victory of Vojislav Kostunica in last week's election.

Both Bush and Gore ruled out U.S. military intervention, even though they agreed that Kostunica had defeated Milosevic.

Bush also called on Russia to mediate.

"This will be an interesting moment for the Russians to step up and lead as well -- [it would be] a wonderful time for the president of Russia to step into the Balkans and convince Mr. Milosevic it's in his best interest and his country's best interest to leave office. The Russians have got a lot of sway [influence] in that part of the world, and we'd like to see them use that sway to encourage democracy to take hold."

Gore replied:

"Now, I understand what the governor [Bush] has said about asking the Russians to be involved, and under some circumstances that might be a good idea. But being as they have not yet been willing to recognize Kostunica as the lawful winner of the election, I'm not sure that it's right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate this -- this dispute there because we might not like the result that comes out of that. They [the Russian government] currently favor going forward with a runoff election. I think that's the wrong thing."

It is impossible to give an immediate assessment of the two men's performances -- although political analysts in the Western news media began doing so straight after the debate was over. But there is no disputing the importance of the three debates.

Bill Frenzel served 20 years in the U.S. Congress (R-Minnesota) and now is a guest scholar in government studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. He told RFE/RL that the first debate is especially important for Americans who are not politically active.

"The first debate in the series of three is always the most important because you have to make that important first impression and show the public that you're the right person. So it is the key event, other than the nominating conventions, in our whole presidential election process."

The first televised debates between the nominees of the two major parties were held in 1960. In that year, John Kennedy -- then a senator from the state of Massachusetts -- was challenging Richard Nixon, who had spent nearly eight years as vice president for President Dwight Eisenhower.

Kennedy was said to have won the three debates -- not necessarily because of how he answered the questions put to him, but because of his relaxed and confident manner. Nixon, meanwhile, looked stiff and uncomfortable.

Perhaps Kennedy also was helped because he was seen as an equal to Nixon, not a challenger. David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank, told RFE/RL that this is an important element of the debates.

"I think one of the key things that a debate can do is establish the credibility for a challenger."

More broadly, Boaz says, the three debates will give Americans their first look at the candidates outside the context of scripted campaign appearances. Besides, he says, Americans pay very little attention to politics early in the campaign season. Therefore, he says, the debates -- beginning a month before the election -- let them find out where the candidates stand on issues.

"For some people, it may be the very first time they've seen George W. Bush operate for an hour -- certainly the first time they've seen both candidates together."

Gore has a reputation for being a good debater. He is widely seen has having won the debates he had with former Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 and with Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp in 1996.

But Gore's reputation could hurt him during the three debates. For instance, Boaz says American voters might judge Bush less critically as a result.

"If he [Bush] holds his own [does not lose] with this guy who's supposed to be a good debater, then he doesn't have to win. He just has to not lose."

Frenzel, the former congressman, says Tuesday night's debate was particularly important because of the closeness of the race. He notes that public opinion polls show the two candidates running about even at the moment. Therefore, he says, a good performance in this debate can be especially important to a candidate's momentum.

"I think both of them [the candidates] believe that the impression they make in this first debate is going -- is likely to be decisive in the electorate's decision on who to vote for president."

Political analysts will spend the next few weeks struggling to score the three debates as if they were football games. Meanwhile, the true referees -- the American voters -- will be making up their own minds. And it is their assessment that will determine who will be the next U.S. president.