Cautious In Carolina

bush and gore at second debate side by side
A looser George W. Bush and a more restrained Al Gore met the same old Jim Lehrer in the second of three presidential debates at Wake Forest University in North Carolina on Wednesday night. They clashed on health care, the environment and foreign policy.

There was little in the way of news, but the candidates articulated different visions of government, and America's place in the world.

A CBS News poll taken immediately after the encounter found that debate watchers narrowly gave the edge to Bush by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percent.

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Second Presidential Debate
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  • Republican Bush’s belief in smaller government at home and more selective involvement in internationl affairs came through on issues from racial profiling (“I don’t want to federalize the local police”) to foreign aid (“I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it's got to be. We can help’”).

    Democrat Gore described a different future. He called “affordable health care” for “every single child in the United States” one of his “top priorities,” and likened the current post-Cold War period to the Marshall Plan era (“Like it or not … the United States is now the natural leader of the world. All these other countries are looking to us. Now, just because we cannot be involved everywhere, and shouldn't be, doesn't mean that we should shy away from going in anywhere.”)

    Bush made no misstatements, mispronunciations or malapropisms this time, despite efforts by Gore supporters to psych him out in the days leading up to the debate by calling Bush a bumbler and comparing him to Dan Quayle.

    Gore, who has slipped in the polls lately, bent over backwards Wednesday night to erase the memory of his first debate performance which was criticized as overbearing and irritating because of his audible sighs of disapproval and repeated attempts to get the last word on every go-round.

    The vice president may have overmodulated.

    He “agreed” with Bush on at least four points, five if you count the Golden Rule. Gore held back even when he had the substantive goods on Bush, couching his salvos in phrases like, “Maybe I’ve heard the statements wrong, Governor…”

    Even where the facts were on his side, Gore didn’t take it to Bush like we know he can.

    Suburban parents who favor more gun controls might have liked to hear more from Gore about a Los Angeles Times investigation that found more than 400 Texas convicts - some who committed violent crimes - got licenses to carry concealed weapons thanks to a Bush law. Gore mentioned, but did not explain, the story, saying only that the paper “spent a lot of ink going into that.”

    And although Gore has television ads airing in battleground states asserting, “Texas is number three in water pollution, number one in air pollution,” he only referenced one of those stats, once, in the context of a long answer about global warming.

    During a 40-minute foreign policy discussion that opened the 90-minute debate, Bush said, “I worry about overcommitting our troops around the world,” and pointed to U.S. logistical support for peacekeepers in East Timor as an example of an appropriate way for America to further its foreign policy objectives, without getting too involved.

    Bush was especially critical of U.S. intervention in Haiti, which he derided as “nation building.” And Gore made a little news, criticizing Ameican inaction during Rwanda’s 1994 massacres with 20/20 hindsight. (“[W]e were too late getting in there. We would have saved more lives if we had acted earlier.”).

    There were no differences on near-term policy in the Middle East and Yugoslavia.

    When Lehrer turned to domestic issues, Bush was on more familiar ground.

    In his strongest section of the debate, an unscripted Bush held forth on some of his favorite stump themes – education, cultural values and law enforcement.

    Asked about guns, he talked about culture and parenting (“This is a society that's … got to do a better job of teaching children right from wrong.”).

    Asked about racial profiling, he talked about literacy and the death sentences given to two (Bush said three) Texas whites who murdered James Byrd, a black man (“They're going to be put to death.”).

    Later, the Bush campaign issued a statement acknowledging the Texas governor's mistake with respect to the Byrd case. But the Gore campaign countered by saying Bush's exaggeration was of the same caliber as the misstatements for which the vice president has been so roundly criticized.

    On health care, Gore finally came out of his corner and took a few swings.

    Citing statistics that Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states for children and women with health insurance, Gore challenged Bush on his record as governor in Texas where 1.4 million children don’t have health care, and a half million who are eligible for the federally-funded, state-administered program called CHIP are not enrolled.

    “You quote all the numbers you want, we care about out people in Texas,” said Bush, who defended his record and his state.

    Gore argued the governor’s record in Texas is “directly relevant” to the presidential choice because Bush has signaled his “priorities” with his $1.3 trillion tax cut plan which Gore says gives the “wealthiest of the wealthy” more in tax savings than Bush plans to spend on “health care and education and national defense all combined, according to his own numbers.”

    In the atmosphere of determined mutual respect, there was a palpable undercurrent of suspicion. If Gore was graceless during his off-camera moments last time, Bush was the face-maker this time. He frowned, he smirked, he raised his eyebrows.

    Remember the testy, petulant George W? He’s back, and he has no patience for Al Gore.

    Finally, Lehrer asked Bush and Gore directly about their campaign teams’ attacks of this week. Bush’s people have called Gore a “serial exaggerator” and Gore’s people are implying that Bush is not smart enough to be president.

    Neither man accepted responsibility for his lieutenants’ attacks.

    The stakes going into the second debate were high. The race remains extremely close in national polls, wit the momentum – or perception thereof – on Bush's side for now. Gore led Bush by a 43-42 percent margin among likely voters in a new CBS News poll.

    The calendar calls for one more debate, set for next Tuesday in St. Louis.