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But despite the popular discontent with the Democratic and Republican contenders, Vice President Al Gore emerged from the clash with Texas governor George W. Bush as the hands-down winner. Gore easily outmaneuvered Bush, throwing him off balance with facts and figures and leaving Shrub flailing wildly over dead-and-buried scandals like the Buddhist temple fundraiser.
The debate proved an anticlimax to an afternoon of demonstrations in support of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who along with other upstart contestants was shut out of the rhetorical showdown. Activists milled around the edges of the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, which the police had turned into a virtual armed camp, replete with SWAT teams, bomb-sniffing dogs, and mounted police units. To enter the university required passing through three different checkpoints. When Nader, carrying a ticket to the debate given him by a Northeastern University student, arrived at the UMass site, he was met by three cops and a representative of the debate commission, who barred him from entering the hall. The police subsequently threatened to arrest him.
After the debate ended, cars lining up to leave were blocked by a hundred or so demonstrators who sat down in the road.
At least the protesters knew the difference between their political positions and those of their opponents.
Bush and Gore, for their part, struggled all night to separate themselves on matters of policy, when in fact they agree on most major points.
Both Bush and Gore stump like mad on the hot-button issue of holding teachers accountable in school.
Both advocate tax cuts, although Bush's plan favors the rich, and Gore's is aimed at the middle class.
Both want to help seniors defray the cost of prescription drugs. But here Gore has the clearer and more forthright approach.
Bush wants to solve America's oil quandary by encouraging increased production of domestic crude, including drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic wilderness. Gore opposes drilling in the Arctic refuge, and would instead pursue more-limited domestic exploration while concentraing on reducing consumption through conservation and the development of renewable resources.
Bush remains pro-life, but surprisingly said last night he would not move to reverse the FDA approval of the abortion pill RU-486. He also said he would not use abortion as a litmus test in choosing justices for the Supreme Court. Gore, meanwhile, defended his pro-choice views and support for the legalization of RU-486, and though he said it was likely his Supreme Court appointees would support the right to choose, he stopped short of saying that would be a requirement.
Both men want to kick Slobodan Milosevic out of power in Yugoslavia, although Bush unaccountably suggested persuading the Russians to help remove the dictatora tactic that has already been tried without success. Here, Gore scored one of his clearest points of the night, when he interrupted Bush to say the Russians didn't share America's position on Milosevic. Gore voiced support for nation building and aggressive intervention in foreign affairs, calling the crisis in Yugoslavia a "genocide," and proudly trumpeting his support of Bush Sr. in the Persian Gulf War. Shrub said he would pursue a far more cautious policy abroad, fighting only wars we can win.
Bush wants workers to have the right to invest some of their retirement savings in the stock market, instead of keeping all the money in the relatively low-return Social Security program. Gore also would encourage market investments, but in a more modest program that would leave Social Security taxes untouched.
All in all, there's not much to pick from.