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Clinton, Dole Spar In Town Hall Debate

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

clinton and dole

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AllPolitics, Oct. 16) -- In their final face-off before the Nov. 5 election, Republican Bob Dole criticized the Clinton Administration's ethical lapses and what he called "scandals almost on a daily basis," but Bill Clinton studiously ignored his rival's attacks.

"I don't want to respond in kind to all these things," Clinton said tonight during the 90-minute debate at the University of San Diego. "No attack ever created a job or educated a child or helped a family make ends meet. No insult ever cleaned up a toxic waste dump." (288k WAV sound)

Dole, however, said the president has a responsibility to set an example for the country and suggested the Clinton Administration has failed the public ethics test. (288k WAV sound)

"There's no doubt about it that many American people have lost their faith in government," Dole said. "They see scandals almost on a daily basis. They see 900 FBI files... being gathered up by somebody in the White House."

But since Clinton did not directly engage Dole on these charges, any expected fireworks over the character question did not erupt.

In his closing statement, Dole said he wanted voters "to be proud of their vote in the years ahead.... I'll just make you one promise. My word is good."

clinton audience

Twice, in the debate's town hall format, Dole got questions from several of the 113 people in the studio audience that gave him the opportunity to raise the character issue. (265k WAV sound)

One woman asked Dole about how government can practice the ideals and morals that schools try to teach to youngsters. And a minister asked about being a role model for the young.

Each time, Dole used the question to question Clinton's "public ethics," citing the FBI files gathered up by "somebody who was a bouncer in a bar." The second time Dole raised the issue, Clinton listened with a half-smile.

Although the debate had a harder edge than the first one 10 days ago, it didn't focus all on character.

The audience asked questions on welfare reform, the possibility of U.S. troops being sent to Israel, a capital gains tax cut, the family leave act, affirmative action, third-party participation in the debates and other issues. Domestic issues were at the forefront, compared to the foreign policy tilt of the first Clinton-Dole debate.

side view

As in that debate, Clinton and Dole disagreed at length over Dole's proposal for an 15 percent across-the-board tax cut (265k WAV sound) compared with Clinton's smaller, more targeted tax cuts for education and child-rearing.

Dole said he was offended at the Democrats' constant references to his plan as "a risky scheme." Dole said it would be possible to balance the budget and cut taxes at the same time because his plan calls for letting government spending grow by just 14 percent, compared to Clinton's 20 percent.

"Remember, it's your money," Dole said. "It's not his money. And it's not my money."

"If I have anything in politics, it's my word," Dole said. "We are going to cut taxes and balance the budget."

"Ours is a good plan," he added. "We need to get the economy going."

Clinton, however, said voters deserve to know how someone is going to pay for a proposed tax cut.

"You should expect that from both of us," Clinton said.

The closest either man came to an outright gaffe was when Dole said it was "the worst economy in a century," seeming to ignore the Great Depression of the 1930s.

wide shot

Clinton and Dole also sparred on Medicare. A retired Air Force pilot asked Clinton about the financial health of the health care program for seniors.

Clinton said his proposed budget would add 10 years of life to the Medicare Trust Fund.

Dole said lawmakers will work out an answer, but criticized Clinton's approach. "I mean, this is a political year," Dole said. "And the president's playing politics with Medicare. But after this year's over, we'll resolve it just as we did with Social Security in 1983....I think if I were a senior citizen, I'd be a little fed up with all these ads scaring seniors, scaring veterans." (192k WAV sound)

Clinton shot back that the Republicans' budget proposals would have boosted costs and could have endangered hospitals. "Their idea was to have the poorest seniors in the country pay $270 more a year this year. Their idea was a budget that the American Hospital Association said could close 700 hospitals.... We need to reform it, not wreck it," Clinton said.

One young woman asked Dole about his age and how he would relate to young people.

Dole said his economic plan would mean a better future for young people, and suggested his age and experience are an advantage.

clinton and dole

Clinton turned the question against Dole, but in an unexpected way. "I can only tell you that I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president," Clinton said. "It's the age of his ideas that I question."

"When you don't have any ideas, I guess you say the other person's ideas are old," Dole replied.

Once again, Jim Lehrer of PBS served as moderator, choosing the people who got to ask questions. But he said beforehand he did not know what questions they would ask. The Gallup polling organization screened the audience to get uncommitted voters.

The candidates stood at podiums, with the audience seated in a rough half-circle around them, although they occasionally roamed around the stage. It was the kind of forum that seemed to favor Clinton, known for ease in talking to people at such gatherings. But both men seemed relaxed, occasionally asking someone to repeat their name or making a joke.

Clinton seized on some of the questions to his liking. When one man asked him if he had any plans to expand the family leave act, the president said Dole led the opposition to it.

"He filibustered it. He said it was a mistake. He said it would but the economy," Clinton said. "He still believes it's a mistake. You can decide which of us you think is right."

Whether either candidate will get any long-lasting bounce from the affair remains to be seen.

Clinton's support has fallen below 50 percent in recent days, coinciding with Dole's stepped-up rhetoric on the Clinton Administration's ethics. The most recent CNN tracking poll shows Clinton with a 48-39 percent lead over Dole, with 5 percent for Ross Perot.

The debate was the final in a series of three agreed to by the two campaigns, two presidential and one vice presidential meetings. Dole, however, suggested twice during the evening that he is interested in another debate before the election, including third-party candidates, on the economy.

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