BOSTON - Promising voters a fresh start after a season of cynicism, George W. Bush charged last night in the first presidential debate that Al Gore had let down the country in the fund-raising abuses of the 1996 campaign.
Gore, apparently concerned about his image as an overly aggressive debater, refused to engage his opponent.
"Look, Governor Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility, and I am not going to respond in kind," said the vice president, who instead spent much of the evening criticizing Bush's $1.3 trillion tax proposal as a giveaway to the rich.
The Texas governor delivered his frontal attack on the vice president's character near the end of a 90-minute debate in which the two men outlined sharp differences on a wide range of issues.
"I don't know the man well," Bush said, launching his most scathing remarks of the debate. "But I've been disappointed about how he and his administration conducted the fund-raising affairs. Going to a Buddhist temple and claiming it wasn't a fund-raiser isn't my view of responsibility.
"I think the thing that discouraged me about the vice president was uttering those famous words, `No controlling legal authority,'" Bush said, referring to Gore's defense of the fund-raising calls he placed from his White House office during the 1996 campaign.
"I think they've moved that sign `The buck stops here' from the Oval Office desk to `The buck stops here at the Lincoln Bedroom,'" Bush added, referring to sleepovers for contributors in the last presidential campaign and in Hillary Rodham Clinton's current Senate campaign in New York.
The personal assault came near the end of the nationally televised debate in the gymnasium of the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston. The moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, offered Bush the opportunity to lay into Gore by asking him whether there were issues of character that distinguished him from the vice president.
Turning the other cheek
Gore, who has a well-earned reputation as a ferocious debater, had been warned by aides against appearing too overbearing. He responded to Bush by turning the other cheek, passing up several opportunities to return personal fire at Bush and even complimenting several of his opponent's answers.
"I think we ought to attack the country's problems, not each other," said Gore, who listened intently as Bush turned on him from his place on the red-carpeted stage. "I want to spend my time making this country better than it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person. You may want to focus on scandal. I want to focus on results."
Gore tried to recover by pledging his support for overhauling the system of funding elections. But Bush responded tartly that Gore "has no credibility on this issue."
Again, Gore refused to engage. But in an apparent attempt to distance himself from President Clinton's fund-raising activities, Gore returned to a line from his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.
"I stand here as my own man, and I want you to see me as I really am," he said, adding that he strongly supported the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform proposal, which Bush opposes.
Stressing their differences
Earlier, the candidates had placed a wide range of policy differences before the viewing audience. In the process, they seemed to refute the claim of those who say there are no real distinctions to be made between the two nominees.
Throughout, Gore displayed impatience and sometimes irritation with Bush's responses. The vice president grimaced and sighed audibly - a reaction often captured in close-up when the candidates were shown on a split-screen.
Among the issues on which they offered differing visions: tax cuts, Supreme Court nominations, prescription drug benefits for seniors, Medicare reform, abortion, the use of U.S. military force abroad, school vouchers, drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness and Social Security reform.
Gore said Bush's across-the-board tax cut would return more money to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers than Bush would spend on new programs for health care, prescription drugs for seniors and national defense combined.
Bush retorted by accusing Gore of using "phony numbers" and "fuzzy math." The Republican said the budget surplus belongs to all of the "hard-working" taxpayers and not just those lower- and middle-income payers who would benefit from Gore's tax cuts.
Gore agreed that "the surplus is the American people's money. It's your money. That's why I don't think we should give half of it to the wealthiest 1 percent."
Bush, who started slowly but seemed to gain confidence as the debate progressed, returned repeatedly to the theme of change, arguing that Clinton and Gore had had eight years to tackle many of the problems facing the nation. But he avoided any personal criticism of the president.