WINSTON-SALEM - Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore attempted to delineate their views on issues ranging from foreign policy to education to the environment during the season's second presidential debate at Wake Forest University on Wednesday night.
The debate, which took place in Wake Forest's Wait Chapel, was attended by nearly 2,000 spectators and members of the media and moderated by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer.
The debate was conducted in a television talk-show style format, with the two candidates and Lehrer seated behind a table to facilitate more of a conversation between the candidates.
Wednesday's debate was the first time such a format, which Bush specifically requested when debate details were being negotiated, was used in a presidential debate. The more relaxed setting seemed to make the opponents more civil than last week's debate, though their tones grew more heated as the night wore on.
The event began with a discussion of the two candidates' views on foreign policy. Both candidates acknowledged that the United States has a large leadership role to play in the post-Cold War era, but each differed on how the United States should deal with conflicts in the Middle East and Kosovo.
Gore also said the government has an obligation, because of its position as the world's only superpower, to have a hand in world events. "Like it or not, the United States is now the natural leader of the free world," Gore said. "Other countries look to us."
But Bush criticized the Clinton administration for being too quick to deploy troops to resolve international conflicts. He said the government needs to focus on rebuilding its military strength and to streamline its foreign policy goals. "We do have an obligation (to help other countries)," Bush said. "But we can't be all things to all people. We have to be grounded in our generosity."
The debate then turned to the issue of racial profiling. Gore said racial profiling prevention is one issue he would tackle as president. Bush recognized profiling as a problem but warned that the government must be careful not to limit police officers' ability to investigate crimes.
The merits of federal legislation increasing the penalty for hate crimes was then discussed, with Gore accusing Bush of failing to support a Texas bill strengthening hate-crime legislation in the wake of the murder of James Byrd, a black man who was killed by white supremacists in Texas last year.
Bush denied the accusation and touted the importance of severely punishing those found guilty of crimes. "The three men who killed James Byrd - guess what is going to happen to them," he said. "They are going to be put to death."
One of the issues on which the two candidates were most polarized was the issue of same-sex marriages, with Bush opposed to the idea and Gore advocating legislation that would legitimize a civil union between homosexual couples.
Gun control was another major issue where the candidates touted quite different policy options. Gore's platform centers on making it more difficult for children and known criminals to acquire guns. He said he would support beefing up the enforcement of existing gun laws, restoring the provision of the Brady law that requires a mandatory three-day waiting period before purchasing a hand gun and strengthening initiatives designed to make the nation's schools gun-free. Bush said he supports conducting background checks at gun shows and raising the minimum age to carry a handgun from 18 to 21 nationwide. But Bush stressed the importance of instilling values in children early in life that would prevent them from becoming criminals.
On the issues of health care and Medicare, Bush said he would work to increase the number of community health centers, give low-income families tax rebates to fund health insurance and allow businesses to form health insurance programs as coalitions. Gore spoke on his efforts to reduce the size of government as vice president and slammed Bush, citing statistics that indicate Texas is the state with the largest percentage of families without health care. Bush responded by saying Texas spends $4.7 billion annually on the uninsured.
Lehrer then asked the two candidates to speak on the environment. Gore cited global warming as a major issue facing the country in years to come, while Bush warned that scientists were still too divided on the causes and severity of global warming to dictate policy. Gore said he would work for a cleaner environment in ways that would also strengthen the economy. Bush stressed the importance of federal collaboration with state and local governments when forming and implementing environmental policy.
The two candidates debated publicly for the first time last week at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. A third debate is scheduled for Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.
In their closing statements, each candidate left viewers nationwide with a parting word subtly aimed at his opponent.
Gore warned against "squandering" the budget surplus, saying he was the candidate that would redirect the money to improve health care and education. But Bush said he would work to return unspent dollars to citizens.
He said, "I believe you can spend your money better than the federal government can."
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