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Veep candidate take healthy swings in debate

By STEVEN HEILBRONNER

ATLANTA -- The three vice presidential candidates went at each other in a free-swinging debate Tuesday night, with Vice President Dan Quayle repeating his Democratic opponents can't be trusted and Sen. Al Gore attacking the Republican economic policy.

In between was former Adm. James Stockdale, the running mate of independent presidental candidate Ross Perot, who clearly was the least polished candidate but the one with some of the most popular lines of the evening.

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'I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock,' Stockdale said at one point, breaking into a spirited back- and-forth between Quayle and Gore over which party can best handle the nation's economy.

The only vice presidential debate was not expected to change many voters' minds but it did provide a forum for Quayle and Gore to vigorously defend theirrunning mates and attack their opponents.

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Gore opened with a ringing attack on the Republican administration of President Bush and Quayle. He alluded to the comment made in the 1988 debate by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, about Gore not being John Kennedy and also to the fear of some that Quayle might some day ascend to the presidency.

In recalling that Harry Truman became president on the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Gore told the national television audience, 'It's something to think about during the debate this evening.'

Quayle responded just as strongly against the Democrat's presidential candidate, Bill Clinton.

'Bill Clinton does not have the strength nor the character to be president of the United States,' Quayle said in his opening statement. 'You need to have a president you can trust. ... Can you really trust Bill Clinton.'

The hour-and-a-half debate went on very much that way with Quayle and Gore going after each other tooth and nail with Stockdale often appearing only as an observer.

Quayle hit hard first at whether Clinton was a person who could be trusted and second at what he said would be another tax-and-spend Democratic regime.

'The question isn't who are you going to blame, it's what are you going to do about it,' the vice president said. 'How is raising taxes going to help? ... I submit to you that raising taxes will make matters much, much worse.'

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At every point he could, Gore tried to get the discussion focused on the economy and domestic agenda of four years of the Bush-Quayle administraion and how the Democratic ticket was the one for change in Washington.

'You (Quayle-Bush) still support trickle-down economics down to the very last drop,' Gore said. 'We won't wait four years until we target America. Bill Clinton and I will target America from day one.'

In a departure from past debates, the format of the only vice presidential debate of this election year was one based on a single moderator giving general questions with a longer period for the candidates to exchange questions and ideas among themselves.

That format led to lively back-and-forths between Quayle and Gore, as both stressed the themes their parties wanted and constantly threw questions at each other that they were fairly certain would make points but would not be answered.

At one point in a discussion on abortion, the two candidates were practically shouting questions over each other.

'Do you support a woman's right to choose?' Gore asked Quayle, who immediately followed by asking the senator, 'Do you support a 24-hour waiting period?' before a woman can have an abortion.

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Then almost in unison they shouted at each other, 'You're avoiding the question.'

Right after this exchange, Stockdale said, 'I feel like an observer at a ping-pong game. These expert professional politicians massage the intricate plots, they know every nuance -- in the meantime we are facing a desperate situation in the economy. What the heck! Let's get on with talking about something substantive.'

ABC political analyst Hal Bruno, who acted as the moderator, often had to draw Stockdale into the fray, giving him a chance to get a word in between the flurry of words thrown out by the candidates of the major parties.

'Who am I? Why am I here?' Stockdale said in his opening statement, drawing laughs from the audience at Georgia Tech University. He then mentioned his long military service and years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying, 'I am here because I have in my brain and in my heart what it takes to lead America through tough times.'

Stockdale at times agreed with Quayle as when he said he did not believe the environment should be the 'private property of the fanatics' -- a remark that caused Quayle to clap in support.

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At other points, especially on the question of abortion, Stockdale came down on the side of the Clinton-Gore team.

But in the end it was a platform for Quayle and Gore to present their party's side.

Quayle pressed the 'waffling' or flip-flopping charges often emanating from the Republican camp.

'You're pulling a Clinton,' he said to Gore at one point. 'And you know what a Clinton is? He says one thing one day and another thing the other. ... Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth.'

The final words of his closing statement were, 'The American people should demand that their president tell the truth. Do you really believe, do you really believe, Bill Clinton will tell the truth, and do you, do you trust Bill Clinton to be your president.'

Although the topics were varied, Gore kept coming back to the economy.

'George Bush has concentrated on every country in the world. When are you guys going to concentrate on our country?' he asked.

In the end Stockdale spoke out for Perot and said of the evening's event, 'I think I'm in a room with people who are not living a life of reality. The United States is in deep toruble. We have got to have somebody who can get up there and bring out fire hoses and get it stopped. And that is what we are about in the Perot campaign.'

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And as was expected, each camp said their man had won.

'I'm proud of Al Gore,' Clinton said in a statement released after the debate. 'And tonight all America knows why.'

George Stephanopolous, Clinton's communication director, called Quayle's hits 'the same old stuff they've been throwing out time and time again. Dan Quayle can rant and rave all night long. If you don't tell people what you're going to do in the next four years, it doesn't matter.'

Robert Teeter, Bush-Quayle campaign chairman, heralded Quayle's performance as 'aggressive, more convincing' than Gore's, especially in his attacks on the Democrat's shifting positions. 'Governor Clinton has been sayiing different things on issue after issue,' Teeter said.

The discussion also featured a number of one-liners, with Quayle jibing, 'Take a breath Al, inhale,' at one point, a reference to Gore's admission he had smoked marijuana in the past.

Gore, for his part, turned talk of term limitations for politicians into a joke. 'We're fixing to limit one,' he quipped.

The next presidential debate comes Thursday night in Richmond, Va. at a time still to be determined by whether there is an American League baseball game that night. The final debate will be at 7 p.m. EDT Monday night in East Lansing, Mich.

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Stockdale also provided another breath of fresh air as the two major party candidates sparred over the environment.

Bush and Quayle have accused Gore of environmental extremism, saying he proposes measures that will reduce jobs in industry and commerce. And while arguing over what precisely Gore had stated in his widely distributed treatise, 'Earth in the Balance,' the retired naval officer said he had read it.

'I don't see how he could pay for his proposals,' he said simply, adding he was always leary of 'fanatics who want to overdo' protection of the environment.

The exchange was quite unlike the first highly controlled presidential debate Sunday among the presidential candidates, mostly because the debate on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology was run by a single moderator, Hal Bruno of ABC News, and invited more time for direct confrontation.

Each of the candidates was quite aware that about 45 million Americans were expected to tune in to the debate.

Gore threw out a number of questions on the Bush administration's record, including health care policy, a veto of family leave policy, and an alleged failure to act early on the nation's ailing economy.

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'George Bush has concentrated on every country in the world. When are you guys going to concentrate on our country,' he said.

Quayle's counter was to press often the charge of 'waffling' or flip-flopping, an accusation raised often by the Republican camp.

'You're pulling a Clinton,' he said. 'And you know what a Clinton is? He says one thing one day and another thing the other. ... Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth.'

The discussion also featured a number of one-liners, with Quayle jibing, 'Take a breath Al, inhale,' at one point, a reference to Gore's admission he had smoked marijuana in the past.

Gore, for his part, turned talk of term limitations for politicians into a joke. 'We're fixing to limit one,' he quipped.

But the thrusts were deadly serious.

Later, on the controversial question of abortion, Gore pointed to Clinton's support of abortion rights and said Bush in a second term could stack the Supreme Court with conservative candidates who would overturn the law allowing abortions.

'I support the right of a woman to choose, can you say that?' he asked of Quayle.

The vice president gave a earnest defense of the administration's position against abortions except if the mother's life is at risk.

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'I happen to be pro-life,' he said. 'My objective and the president's objective is to try to reduce abortions in this country. ... Remember, every abortion stops a beating heart.'

But Stockdale cut to the quick of a lengthy exchange, in which each candidate sparred to turn the controversial question to his advantage.

'I believe a woman owns her body and what she does with it is her own business,' he said. 'Period. I don't think they should be made illegal and I don't think it's a political issue.'

As the disputing continued, Stockdale expressed more frustration.

'I feel like an observer at a pingpong game. These expert professional politicians massage the intricate plots, they know every nuance -- in the meantime we are facing a desperate situation in the economy. What the heck! Let's get on with talking about something substantive.'

The obscure 68-year-old retired Navy combat pilot, old enough to be the father of both of the men standing next to him, often was short on providing his own answers and passed his own time to the others.

But the former Vietnam prisoner of war, who spent four years in solitary confinement, turned out to be both eloquent and engaging in a plain-spoken way, not unlike the maverick top of his ticket.

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