SAN DIEGO -- In scathing, often personal terms, Bob Dole repeatedly attacked President Clinton last night as a politician who lacks ideas, breaks his campaign promises and exaggerates his accomplishments.
Dole, trailing badly in the polls and needing to give his candidacy a jolt, turned almost every question in the 90-minute television debate into a criticism of the president.
"I'll keep my word." Dole said, over and over. "My word is my bond." He said many Americans have lost their faith in government because of Clinton administration scandals that occur "on almost a daily basis."
The town hall format, featuring questions from a panel of undecided voters at the University of San Diego, produced the liveliest debate of the campaign.
Clinton, after all but ignoring his rival's jabs at the outset, eventually hit back hard. At the same time, he tried to portray himself as a reluctant combatant, deploring the political "tit for tat" because "it doesn't create jobs. It doesn't educate children. It doesn't solve problems."
The sharpest, and most personal, exchange followed a question about Dole's age from Melissa Naudin, a student at the University of California, San Diego.
Asked how he could relate to young people, the 73-year-old Dole replied, "Wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence. I have some age, some experience and some intelligence. That adds up to wisdom."
"I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question," Clinton shot back.
But as the president went on to accuse Dole of promising "an election year tax cut that's not paid for," the Republican interrupted.
"You tried it the last time you ran," remarked Dole, referring to Clinton's failure to deliver on his 1992 campaign pledge of a middle-class tax cut.
"When you don't have any ideas, I guess you say the other person's ideas are too old," Dole went on. "I keep my word. You'll have a tax cut." However, the former senator ducked when Kim David, a mechanical engineer, asked for specifics on how Dole could cut taxes by more than $500 billion over six years and still balance the budget, as he's pledged.
"The president doesn't have any ideas, so he's out trashing ours," Dole said.
It was a debate in the round, as a panel of 113 undecided voters from the San Diego area, seated onstage in a semicircle, fired questions at the candidates, with the assistance of moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.
There were tough questions on issues such as the need to reign in the cost of government social programs, tobacco, affirmative action and gay rights. Others fell wide of the mark, such as when the candidates were asked what they would do to reform welfare, just a few months after Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the most sweeping reform in 60 years.
Dole, who went into the debate with plans to attack Clinton over the administration's ethical problems, was given few opportunities to press his character attack. Instead, much of the debate was devoted to exchanges over the economy and their respective plans.
"If you believe the California economy was better in 1992 than it is today, you should vote for Bob Dole," Clinton said, motioning with his thumb toward the Republican.
Both men appeared at ease in the town meeting format, seldom standing behind their podiums and instead wandering the stage of the Shiley Theatre.
Responding to an inquiry from a Navy man about military pay, World War II veteran Dole said he appreciated the question, "being a former military man myself," a thinly veiled attack at the president's avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War.
He also criticized Clinton for taking credit for cutting the crime rate and reforming welfare, accomplishments, Dole said, that are largely due to efforts of mayors, governors and other state and local officials.
But Dole found himself on the defensive when Oscar Delgado, who described himself as a former pack-a-day smoker, asked the Republican to explain his statement that nicotine is not addictive.
Dole, whose stumbles over tobacco hurt him earlier in the campaign, defended his voting record on tobacco issues and noted that his brother, Kenneth, a smoker who suffered from emphysema "probably died partly because of cigarettes."
"I was asked a technical question. Are they [cigarettes] addictive? Maybe they are, they probably are addictive. I don't know, I'm not a doctor," Dole said.
He went on to attack Clinton's failure to curb the importation of illegal drugs.
"When I'm president of the United States, we're going to use the National Guard and whatever sources we need to stop some of the drugs coming into America," Dole said. "If you stop the drugs, nobody is going to use the drugs. So don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't use drugs. Just don't do it."
Clinton called his proposals to limit the availability of tobacco to young people "one of the biggest differences" between himself and Dole.
"No president had ever taken on the [tobacco] lobby before. I did. Senator Dole opposed me," Clinton said.
From the outset, Dole moved from behind the podium. He began his opening statement with a joke about the baseball playoff game that may have drained some of the viewing audience from the debate.
Still seeking to introduce himself to the electorate, less than three weeks before Election Day, Dole made repeated efforts to slip portions of his personal story into his answers.
"I might just say, I'm from a large family. They live all across the country," he said. "They're not all Republicans. Maybe all but one," he quipped, drawing one of the few laughs of the evening.
Both men repeated stock lines from their campaign speeches. Dole told the same anecdote about his fall from a California stage that he used in the first presidential debate.
Clinton, whose demeanor ranged from sober and businesslike to folksy, kept trying to underscore the economic well-being of the country that has boosted his re-election chances.
"Compared to four years ago, we're clearly better off," he said.
Clinton ignored a Dole challenge to pledge that he would not pardon any of his Whitewater business partners. Dole also made an oblique reference to reports about contributions to the Democratic Party by donors with ties to a wealthy Indonesian family.
Last night's was the second and final debate between the two presidential nominees, who met first in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 6. However Dole challenged Clinton last night to a third debate with all the presidential candidates; Clinton ignored the offer.
Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was excluded from both debates. Dozens of his supporters, many carrying signs and banners, were outside the debate site last night, protesting his exclusion.
Foreign policy was discussed only briefly.
Clinton did not rule out sending sending U.S. troops as peacekeepers as part of a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. But he indicated that such a deployment was highly unlikely. Dole flatly rejected the idea.
"I do not believe Yasser Arafat wants us to send troops to the West Bank," Clinton said initially. "We have never been asked to send troops to the West Bank."
Later, he hedged: "If they asked us to play some reasonable role, I don't know how I would respond. It would depend entirely on what they ask us to do. But the real secret there is for them to abide by the agreements they've made and find a way to trust each other."
Arafat, the Palestinian leader, made such a suggestion Tuesday as he expressed frustration at the stalemate in negotiations over the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron. Referring to Israel's demands for protection of Jewish settlers in the West Bank town once Israeli troops withdraw, Arafat said he had told the Israelis that if they didn't trust their or the Palestinians' troops to police the accord, "Why not call upon the international presence with the participation of the American Army."
The idea was quickly rejected by Israel, and Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the idea was "not under active consideration."
The joint appearance was seen by Dole advisers as the Republican's last best chance to make a dramatic jump in the polls.
For months, Dole has been unable to move above 40 percent in public opinion surveys. He trails Clinton by 12 to 15 percentage points in the latest national polls.
Dole's assault on the president's ethics came after a long internal debate within the Dole campaign. It is at least the fifth line of attack that Dole has tried, after earlier attempts to make crime, drugs, taxes and Clinton's liberalism the central issue in the campaign.
But the character issue holds particular risks for Dole, who has never been able to shake the hatchet-man reputation gained in earlier national campaigns. A national poll, released this week, found that most voters view Dole, negatively, as the main attacker in the '96 campaign.
The CBS/New York Times survey showed that most voters believe Dole is spending more time attacking Clinton, rather than explaining what he would do as president. By contrast, Clinton is perceived as devoting most of his energies to explaining what he would do in a second term and only a small amount of his time to attacking Dole, the poll found.
Pub Date: 10/17/96