SAN DIEGO SUN STAFF WRITERS CARL CANNON, SUSAN BAER AND MARK MATTHEWS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — SAN DIEGO -- In scathing, often personal terms, Bob Dole repeatedly attacked President Clinton last night as a politician who lacks ideas, breaks his campaign promises and exaggerates his accomplishments.
Dole, trailing badly in the polls and needing to give his candidacy a jolt, turned almost every question in the 90-minute television debate into a criticism of the president.
"I'll keep my word." Dole said, over and over. "My word is my bond." He said many Americans have lost their faith in government because of Clinton administration scandals that occur "on almost a daily basis."
The town hall format, featuring questions from a panel of undecided voters at the University of San Diego, produced the liveliest debate of the campaign.
Clinton, after all but ignoring his rival's jabs at the outset, eventually hit back hard. At the same time, he tried to portray himself as a reluctant combatant, deploring the political "tit for tat" because "it doesn't create jobs. It doesn't educate children. It doesn't solve problems."
The sharpest, and most personal, exchange followed a question about Dole's age from Melissa Naudin, a student at the University of California, San Diego.
Asked how he could relate to young people, the 73-year-old Dole replied, "Wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence. I have some age, some experience and some intelligence. That adds up to wisdom."
"I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question," Clinton shot back.
But as the president went on to accuse Dole of promising "an election year tax cut that's not paid for," the Republican interrupted.
"You tried it the last time you ran," remarked Dole, referring to Clinton's failure to deliver on his 1992 campaign pledge of a middle-class tax cut.
"When you don't have any ideas, I guess you say the other person's ideas are too old," Dole went on. "I keep my word. You'll have a tax cut." However, the former senator ducked when Kim David, a mechanical engineer, asked for specifics on how Dole could cut taxes by more than $500 billion over six years and still balance the budget, as he's pledged.
"The president doesn't have any ideas, so he's out trashing ours," Dole said.
It was a debate in the round, as a panel of 113 undecided voters from the San Diego area, seated onstage in a semicircle, fired questions at the candidates, with the assistance of moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.
There were tough questions on issues such as the need to reign in the cost of government social programs, tobacco, affirmative action and gay rights. Others fell wide of the mark, such as when the candidates were asked what they would do to reform welfare, just a few months after Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the most sweeping reform in 60 years.
Dole, who went into the debate with plans to attack Clinton over the administration's ethical problems, was given few opportunities to press his character attack. Instead, much of the debate was devoted to exchanges over the economy and their respective plans.
"If you believe the California economy was better in 1992 than it is today, you should vote for Bob Dole," Clinton said, motioning with his thumb toward the Republican.
Both men appeared at ease in the town meeting format, seldom standing behind their podiums and instead wandering the stage of the Shiley Theatre.
Responding to an inquiry from a Navy man about military pay, World War II veteran Dole said he appreciated the question, "being a former military man myself," a thinly veiled attack at the president's avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War.
He also criticized Clinton for taking credit for cutting the crime rate and reforming welfare, accomplishments, Dole said, that are largely due to efforts of mayors, governors and other state and local officials.
But Dole found himself on the defensive when Oscar Delgado, who described himself as a former pack-a-day smoker, asked the Republican to explain his statement that nicotine is not addictive.
Dole, whose stumbles over tobacco hurt him earlier in the campaign, defended his voting record on tobacco issues and noted that his brother, Kenneth, a smoker who suffered from emphysema "probably died partly because of cigarettes."
"I was asked a technical question. Are they [cigarettes] addictive? Maybe they are, they probably are addictive. I don't know, I'm not a doctor," Dole said.
He went on to attack Clinton's failure to curb the importation of illegal drugs.
"When I'm president of the United States, we're going to use the National Guard and whatever sources we need to stop some of the drugs coming into America," Dole said. "If you stop the drugs, nobody is going to use the drugs. So don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't use drugs. Just don't do it."