DURHAM, N.H. -- The two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination spent an hour fencing with one another last night in sometimes provocative but rarely acerbic exchanges that broke no new ground in their campaigns.
Neither Vice President Al Gore nor former Sen. Bill Bradley scored the kind of rhetorical coup or made the kind of political gaffe that makes a political debate memorable. But in their fourth such confrontation, Bradley was clearly more assertive and Gore less aggressive than in their earlier encounters.
At one point, the vice president repeated his proposal that they agree to twice-a-week debates and stop running television commercials, at least for the balance of the New Hampshire campaign. Bradley again brushed the idea aside as "an interesting ploy," arguing that he needs the commercials to become better known.
When Gore countered that he is now the "underdog" in the latest opinion polls in New Hampshire, Bradley replied: "You know, Al, your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes." To which Gore shot back: "I hope that my underdog victory brings tears to your eyes on Feb. 1."
There were a few pointed exchanges but far more lengthy reiterations of their long-standing differences. At another point, asked to cite any case in which his opponent had taken a vote or statement unfairly "out of context," Bradley said he had been "offended" by Gore's charge that Bradley's health care plan would be harmful to African-Americans and other minority groups.
This set off an extended wrangle over details of the health care plan that the two candidates have been bickering about from a distance for several months and in previous debates for several weeks. Given the same chance, Gore turned aside an opportunity to accuse Bradley of being unfair.
Gore appeared to be reacting to criticism that he had been too harsh in earlier confrontations. At another stage, he passed up an opportunity to make an argument he makes in his ads about the need for "experience" in the White House. Asked if he thought Bradley had enough experience, the vice president replied that that "is for the voters to decide."
In fact, rather than criticizing his rival, he voiced admiration for Bradley as "a genuinely good person." To which Bradley countered in a good-humored way: "I agree with what he said. I think I'm a genuinely good person."
During most of their hour on public television and several cable channels, the two Democrats repeated sections of their standard campaign speeches and bickered predictably on the issues they have been arguing about for several weeks now.
The moderator, Peter Jennings of ABC News, and a panel of three New Hampshire reporters tried to provoke newsworthy answers on touchy issues but with no success.
Asked to comment on Gore's defense of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky episode, Bradley called it "a very trying time for the country" and, without criticizing Gore, added: "It was a sad piece of American history, and I'm glad it's over."
Gore repeated his familiar line that, however much he disapproved of the president's conduct, he was right in defending him against the partisanship of the impeachment process.
A panelist suggested to Bradley that his manner implied he was "aloof or above it all" and unwilling to engage in politics. The former New Jersey senator replied that he has not "shied away from politics" when there was a public goal to be accomplished.
Pressed on his role in political fund raising during the 1996 campaign, Gore admitted that the Democrats had "pressed the limits" and that he had made "a mistake" in making fund-raising telephone calls from his White House office. But Bradley did not pursue the issue.
Bradley's style sometimes seemed to reflect criticism within his own campaign that he had been too laid-back in previous meetings with Gore. Late in the hour, for example, he demanded to know why Gore would not join him in calling for the registration of all the estimated 65 million handguns in America. The vice president replied with a defense of his record on the gun issue without making such a commitment, arguing that it was not realistic.
The two Democrats faced one new question -- whether they would require nominees for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to agree with their policies protecting homosexuals in the military. Both said that although they disagreed with litmus tests for appointees to the Supreme Court, they would require anyone being named to the Joint Chiefs to follow orders from the commander in chief.
The debate was the fourth between the two Democrats, and three more are scheduled over the next three weeks, culminating in the Iowa precinct caucuses Jan. 24 and the primary here Feb. 1. Opinion polls show Gore clearly ahead in Iowa but Bradley even or slightly ahead here.