HARTFORD, Conn. -- Bob Dole peppered President Clinton with criticism on everything from drugs and taxes to his personal background in a nationally televised debate last night.
The Republican challenger, who hoped to give his candidacy a boost with a strong debate performance, portrayed Clinton as a politician who exaggerated his record, failed to keep his promises and is an unreconstructed liberal pretending to be something else.
"I think the best thing going for Bob Dole is that Bob Dole keeps his word," Dole said. "About all you've got going in this campaign is fear."
For the most part, Clinton tried to ignore Dole's zingers. Instead, he gave a forceful defense of his presidency, claiming that he had delivered on his 1992 campaign promises, presided over a resurgent U.S. economy and has a better plan for the 21st century.
"Four years ago, you took me on faith," Clinton told the audience of 800 invited guests at Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford and tens of millions watching across the country. "Now, there's a record: 10 1/2 million more jobs, rising incomes, falling crime rates and welfare rolls, a strong America at peace. We are better off than we were four years ago. Let's keep it going."
In the first of their two scheduled encounters, both men seemed to accomplish what their handlers said they needed to do. They avoided damaging gaffes and delivered well-rehearsed summaries of their campaign themes.
Despite the pointed, even personal, nature of some of the exchanges, they maintained a polite tone, smiling often and appearing to pull their punches.
"You can probably tell we like each other," Clinton said near the end of the 90-minute forum.
But their exchanges had a sharp undertone, with each accusing the other of bending the truth.
Dole compared Clinton to Dole's late brother Kenny, whom he called "the great exaggerator. He was a great talker and he used to tell me things that I knew were not quite accurate."
In a twist on one of Clinton's campaign lines, Dole said, "I want a bridge to the future. I also want a bridge to the truth."
Dole, who was subdued at the outset, became more confident as the debate wore on.
He reminded voters of Clinton's failures over the past four years. He cited the military disaster in Somalia that cost 18 Americans their lives and Clinton's unsuccessful efforts to pass an energy tax, a massive reform of the nation's health care system and his failure to pass a promised tax cut for middle-income Americans.
"I want to give power back to the states and back to the people," Dole said. "That's my difference with the president."
Clinton stayed with his script, sticking to the points he wanted to make, regardless of Dole's goading or the questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.
The issue of the Whitewater affair barely came up. The exception was when Dole chastised Clinton for not ruling out a pardon for his former Whitewater business partners, Jim and Susan McDougal.
Again, Clinton refused to make that pledge last night, a stance Dole termed "a mistake."
Near the end of the debate, Lehrer invited Dole to attack Clinton's character by asking if there were personal differences between himself and the president.
At one point early in their encounter, the former senator made a veiled reference to allegations of past illegal drug use by Clinton that have circulated over the years. But when offered this chance to attack the president's character, Dole shied away.
Instead, Dole launched an attack on Clinton for being far more liberal than he pretends to be.
Clinton responded by saying that the Republican claim that Democrats are liberals is "their golden oldie And I just don't think that dog will hunt this time."
Dole, who, at 73, would be the oldest man ever to become president, also addressed the age issue with an oft-used line from his campaign speeches.
Dole noted that his blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels were lower than Clinton's, then added: "But I will not make health an issue in this campaign."
Clinton repeatedly referred to Dole's 15 percent across-the-board tax cut proposal that many voters are skeptical about as "a tax scheme" that would "blow a hole in the deficit."
Responded Dole, "I'll keep my word on the economic package." He added that if he could not cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time, "I wouldn't look you in the eye tonight in your living rooms and tell you this was good for America."
Questioning Dole's honesty, Clinton accused his rival of telling several "whoppers," including the Republican's claim that Clinton had proposed the largest tax increase in history.
He contended that Dole himself had sponsored a bigger one, in 1982, adding that Dole's own running mate, Jack Kemp, once said that "Bob Dole never met a tax he didn't hike."
After the debate, Dole, clearly pleased with his performance, joked that he had done so well that Clinton would not want a rematch.
"It's over. He doesn't want to debate any more," the Kansan crowed.
The candidates took the red-carpeted stage about five minutes before the debate began, shook hands and took their places behind their lecterns to prolonged applause.
Clinton and Dole spent their pre-broadcast time studying their notes. At one point, Clinton softly spoke his opening lines aloud.
The second and final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 16 in San Diego. On Wednesday, Kemp and Vice President Al Gore will hold their first and only debate in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Pub Date: 10/07/96