Round 2: They stick to the issues Candidates put emphasis on economy, taxes

October 16, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief Sun columnist Roger Simon contributed to this article.

RICHMOND, Va. -- The presidential candidates fielded questions from an audience of ordinary citizens last night in a subdued political experiment that broke little fresh ground in the 1992 race.

President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, were far more restrained than they were in Sunday's opening debate. For the most part, they and independent Ross Perot stuck to the issues at the insistence of the audience, while taking advantage of the generally soft questions to recite segments of their stump speeches.

Mr. Perot, who made a splash in the first debate with his colorful one-liners, generated the only piece of real news, by promising to serve only one term if elected. The Texas tycoon also said he would not accept the $200,000 a year presidential salary.

For the first time in the history of presidential debates, the candidates faced questions from ordinary, undecided voters, who fired away on everything from inner city problems to the "new world order."

Mr. Bush, who stressed his experience in government and his success as a world leader, once again attacked Mr. Clinton as a "tax and spend" Democrat.

The president also answered a charge that he had left unanswered Sunday night, when Mr. Clinton accused him of McCarthyite smears of the sort Mr. Bush's father, Sen. Prescott Bush, once condemned. Mr. Bush used it to contrast his military service with Mr. Clinton's avoidance of the draft, and to again raise questions about his opponent's honesty.

"I remember something my dad told me. I was 18 years old, going to Penn Station to go into the Navy, and he said, '. . . tell the truth.' And I've tried to do that in public life, all through it. That says something about character," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Clinton, who watched with a bemused expression as the president spoke, replied: "I'm not interested in his [Mr. Bush's] character. I want to change the character of the presidency."

In his closing statement, Mr. Bush asked the audience to imagine that the United States would face a crisis "in the next five minutes."

"My question is, who . . . would you choose? Who has the perseverance, the character, the integrity and the maturity to get the job done? I hope I'm that person," Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Bush stumbled when he criticized Congress for paying "a lot of lip service" to his proposal for enterprise zones that would spur private investment in inner cities.

The moderator, Carole Simpson of ABC News, was quick to call Mr. Bush on the fact that he is planning to veto a bill, just passed by Congress, that includes an enterprise zone initiative.

"Sure," Mr. Bush replied, blaming it on "pork" that Congress had added to the measure. And within minutes Bush aides had distributed a press release that quoted a New York Times editorial commenting that the bill wasn't "worth passing."

Mr. Clinton shot back that the threatened Bush veto had more to do with the fact that the aid package would be financed by a tax increase on wealthy Americans.

In fact, the provisions that would have raised taxes on the wealthy were dropped to make the bill more palatable to Mr. Bush. The bill includes about three dozen minor, technical tax increases that would raise $27 billion in Treasury revenue, but none is aimed specifically at the wealthy.

Mr. Clinton tried repeatedly to portray himself as the candidate who is most in touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Marisa Hall, 25, a mechanical drafter from Richmond, pressed the candidates on whether they could really empathize with people who have lost their jobs, or been unable to meet their mortgage payments or their monthly bills because of the burden of the federal debt and the recession.

"I've been governor of a small state for 12 years," Mr. Clinton said. "When people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names."

Mr. Perot, the richest man ever to seek the presidency, said the country's economic distress had "caused me to disrupt my private life and my business to get involved in this activity. That's how much I care about it. And believe me, if you knew my family and if you knew the private life I have, you would agree in a minute that that's a whole lot more fun than getting involved in politics."

Mr. Bush had trouble with the question.

"You, on a personal basis, how has it affected you?" Ms. Hall asked.

"I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren," the president responded. "Listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear and see what I see and read the mail I read and touch the people that I touch from time to time."

Mr. Perot took several opportunities to plug his half-hour paid commercial at 10:30 tonight on NBC. "Like Jerry Brown, the 800 number," Mr. Bush remarked.

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