ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The prime task for any vice presidential nominee in a debate is to make the best case for his party's presidential candidate and to defend him against charges by his counterpart. By that yardstick, Al Gore and Jack Kemp both did their best to get the job done last night.
The result was not exciting theater, with Gore his customary deliberate, even wooden, self and Kemp often rambling in his typical rapid-fire delivery. But the two did spell out their parties' basic differences on a range of issues, from the state of the economy and foreign policy to abortion and how best to protect Medicare.
As the Republican challenger, Kemp tried repeatedly to put the vice president on the defensive by asserting that the administration had no consistent foreign policy and no economic plan for a second term. But Gore countered each time with a calm recitation of the administration's achievements.
The contrast in style was striking. Kemp at times sounded like someone out of the Goldwater era, charging that the Clinton administration was "anti-capitalist" and presiding over "a socialist economy." Refusing to be rattled, Gore took a patient, at times pained, posture toward his opponent.
Kemp had the burden of arguing for the existence of a sick economy when the statistics indicate otherwise. And if he intended to be an effective explainer of the virtues of Bob Dole's proposed 15 percent tax cut, he fell short, as Gore pointed to sharp inconsistencies between Kemp and Dole on tax policy in the past.
Any expectation, however, that Kemp would adopt the tactic of some earlier vice presidential nominees and go fiercely on the attack against the president on the range of personal "character" questions that have been raised about him was not realized.
At the outset, Kemp said: "Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy. We see them as our opponents."
The closest Kemp came to a personal attack was his accusation that Clinton and Gore were guilty of "demagoguery" by scaring senior citizens that their Medicare benefits would be in jeopardy with a Dole victory.
"The only thing they have to offer is fear," Kemp said at one point. "Fear of the environment, fear of the climate, fear of Medicare, fear of Newt [Gingrich], fear of Republicans, fear of Bob and probably fear of cutting tax rates."
David Carney, a senior consultant to the Dole campaign, said afterward that it was never Kemp's intent to bring up personal matters about the president.
"We're not going to win this thing by tearing Bill Clinton down any more," Carney said. " Partisans want us to do that, but swing voters we have to get want to know what we're going to do, about the economy, on taxes."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another key Dole adviser, said that both Republican candidates should and will tread carefully on the character question. It is permissible, McCain said, to question whether Clinton can be trusted after the promises he made in 1992 and didn't keep, but Kemp had made clear that he would launch no personal attacks.
An axiom of presidential politics has always been that a running mate probably can't help the party standard-bearer win election by anything he says or does -- but that he can hurt him by committing a major misstep or by otherwise becoming the subject of ridicule. Both Gore and Kemp avoided that pitfall.
But if there was hope among Dole strategists that Kemp would provide a spark to their underdog campaign with a compelling defense of the Dole tax cut that Dole himself has not sold very effectively, they had to be disappointed.
Kemp was often disjointed and awash in a torrent of his own words, in contrast with the rigidly controlled Gore.
The Gore-Kemp televised debate was only the fifth involving vice presidential candidates. But these confrontations have now become a regular part of the debate schedule, and that is a measure of how the office of the vice presidency has grown in stature and visibility, even though voters may not factor in running mates in deciding for whom to vote.
The fact that Gore and Kemp, two men of experience, intelligence and debating skill faced each other last night was itself proof of how ambitious politicians no longer look with disdain on the vice presidency, as was the case for so long.
Scornful remarks, such as the one from John Nance Garner, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, that the office was not worth "a bucket of warm spit," are not heard anymore as politicians with their eyes on the White House see it as the best stepping stone to the presidency.
Pub Date: 10/10/96