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Debate Between the Presidential Candidates:
Al Gore and George W. Bush

St. Louis, Missouri, October 17, 2000

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Analysis

Read the transcript:
Recap of presidential candidates third debate

NEAL CONAN, host: That exchange of `good luck,' `good luck to you' as the two candidates moved from their high chairs and grasped each other's hands. Now they're embracing their family members, who've come out onto the round stage at the Athletic Complex at Washington University at the close of this third presidential debate, the last before the election.

The questions tonight were provided by uncommitted voters who sat around the stage. Moderator Jim Lehrer started with the subject that attracted the most questions. That was health care. There were exchanges about the Patients Bill of Rights and the price of prescription drugs and national health care. Education was the next big subject and the questions were on accountability for parents and then for teachers, a discussion that ended up ranging into an exchange on the relative fairness of both candidates' tax cut proposals.

Foreign and military affairs was next. The crisis in the Middle East came up and which candidate was better suited by his experience to handle such affairs and whether the US military is overextended. There were questions on gun control and the NRA, on foreign policy--the first time that's come up in the debates; on cultural morality and on the apathy of young voters. There were questions about diversity and affirmative action, tax relief for the middle class, the death penalty and a sixth-grade teacher brought a question from his classroom, `Will you keep the promises you've made during the campaign?'

You're listening to coverage of the third and final presidential debate from NPR News.

Undecided voters able to ask questions in third presidential debate

NEAL CONAN, host: NPR's Steve Inskeep joins us now from the debate hall in St. Louis. Steve, welcome.

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

Hi, Neal.

CONAN: First of all, those people who got to ask the questions, who were those people?

INSKEEP: Well, they were undecided voters, we were told, or uncommitted voters was the phrase that the debate commission used, chosen by the Gallup polling organization and it's particularly interesting that they were from this particular area, St. Louis. This is a swing state, the state of Missouri. This is a state that has been bombarded by ads, not just in the presidential campaign but also a Senate race that has been very active here, and a governors race as well and a number of congressional races. You cannot turn on the television in St. Louis for very long without seeing political commercials and it really seemed to affect some of the questions that they decided to ask folks tonight. There was a question in particular about a television ad involving gun control, an ad that had a clip from the president of the NRA. And this was a question that the candidates had to ask because a group called Handgun Control put out this ad. It's been airing again and again and again in swing states. If you don't live in a swing state, you've probably never seen this ad. But if you are living in one of the 12 to 15 to perhaps 18 or 19 states that are closely contested in this election, it is affecting people and it seemed to affect the questions here, not just about gun control but also the largest number of questions, according to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, had to do with health care. And there are constant commercials on the air about health care here in St. Louis as well.

CONAN: How did the candidates work the crowd? They tried to engage the questioners but their own rules set up prohibited that.

INSKEEP: Well, to some extent, although each man managed to show a dramatically different style--they were walking across this red carpet, surrounded on three and a half sides, if that makes any sense, by the more than 100 uncommitted voters and each showed a very dramatically different style, which almost reflected their basic philosophy in a way. George W. Bush was somewhat reserved. He spoke quietly. He did move toward his questioners as the question was asked, but he was not feeling their pain, in a sense--in a kind of Bill Clinton sort of sense. He was not really emoting. He was keeping a polite distance, I think maybe is a good way to phrase it. He was talking to people, dealing with people, but he was also carefully making sure to get his points out and he was stressing broad themes.

I thought one of the most amazing moments that showed the contrasts, both in style and substance, between these two gentlemen was when Bush said, in effect, and I don't have an exact transcription here, but basically it's not the difference in philosophy or the difference in issues that's important in this election, it's can you get something done, which is George W. Bush's basic philosophy, that he can be less partisan and that he can be less combative and get something done. At that moment, Al Gore stood up, in what appeared to be amazement, and wanted to break in; one of the many times that Al Gore was extremely combative out there today. It's interesting, given the commentary from the last two debates about Al Gore's behavior, that he chose to be aggressive, he chose to say again and again, `I want to fight for you,' and he did that.

There was one instance in which Al Gore actually turned to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and made as if he was licking a finger, as if to say, `I burned you. I got an answer out of this guy.' So people have suggested that Al Gore was an aggressive schoolboy and he's basically saying, `That's who I am and I'm fighting.'

CONAN: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Steve Inskeep in the debate hall at Washington University in St. Louis.

How Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan's death may affect the Missouri campaigns and the presidential campaign


Before we turn to our analysts for their reactions to tonight's debate, we want to spend a moment talking about the Senate race in Missouri. Last night Governor Mel Carnahan was killed in the crash of a private plane along with his son, who was flying the plane, and a campaign adviser. Early this morning there was some talk of canceling or postponing tonight's debate. The decision was made to proceed. Jean Carnahan, the governor's widow, said her husband would have wanted it that way. After all, this provided an opportunity for the two major presidential candidates to be questioned by the citizens of the state of Missouri and for their concerns to be heard.

Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, was term limited as governor and he was in a very close race with Republican Senator John Ashcroft. NPR's David Welna is in St. Louis. He joins us now from the media center at Washington University. David, thank you for joining us.

DAVID WELNA reporting: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: How does this change the Senate race? Obviously, it appears they have to leave, as I understand it by law, Mr. Carnahan's name on the ballot.

WELNA: Yes, that is going to happen. We still have a Senate race but I don't know if we have a Senate campaign anymore. Senator John Ashcroft announced that he is suspending his campaign indefinitely in the wake of the death of his rival. But because Carnahan's name is going to be on the ballot, the big question is: How many of his supporters are going to go to the polls and cast a vote for a dead man? Now there would be a consequence if Carnahan were to get more votes than Ashcroft in this and that would be that the man who replaced him, Roger Wilson, as governor would have the choice of a stand-in that he could name in the place of Carnahan should that come about. Names have been bandied about, such as Carnahan's widow Jean, perhaps one of his children who are politically involved, but the big question is whether people would actually do that. I talked to people today and many people said, you know, they just couldn't imagine voting for him, but others say that they would. They feel that the governor has a huge reputation in this state that they want to honor with their vote. There's also a lot of resentment towards John Ashcroft on the part of many Democrats in Missouri. He was seen as a very divisive senator, after his governorship here, and many people feel that this would send a message that people in this state want him to leave.

CONAN: How might the governor's death affect the very tight presidential race here in Missouri?

WELNA: Well, I guess it would all ride on whether the people who would have voted for Carnahan would stay away from the polls because of his death. Those are people who would most likely vote for Gore because people in Missouri do not have a tradition of splitting their ballots. But that remains to be seen. I think right now there's a lot of gloom in this state over the death of the governor. A lot of people are in shock even. And it's very hard to gauge right now whether they would really stay away from the polls. Some people said that they were so discouraged, they couldn't think about voting today. But I think Al Gore would definitely be the person who would be hurt by the death of the governor, if there were a consequence at the polls.

CONAN: David, thank you very much.

WELNA: And thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's David Welna, who joined us from the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. The funeral for Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan is scheduled on Friday. The governor was 66 years old.

Tonight's broadcast of the final presidential debate is available to you online. If there are parts of the debate you'd like to hear again, visit our Web site at

Third and final presidential debate

NEAL CONAN, host: And now we turn to our analysts. Joining me here in Studio 3A is NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr, Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and joining us from member station KPLU in Tacoma, Washington, is NPR's Elizabeth Arnold. Welcome to you all.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting: Hello. Yes.

CONAN: Dan, want to start us off?

SCHORR: Why not. Neal, at about this moment last Wednesday night I said that I thought that Governor Bush had won the debate. I thought that he scored points and that, for some reason, Vice President Bush--perhaps because he'd been criticized for his actions in the first debate--hung back. Tonight he really came back. I thought what he did was to, first of all, carry the battle to the enemy, if I can put it that way. And almost every answer he inserted not only what he thought about it, but he tried to define Governor Bush and what he thought Governor Bush meant. The governor apparently was not really prepared for this. At times he seemed to be sort of almost staggered by the violence of the attack on him. Secondly, he managed to be very personal. When he wanted to talk about Hollywood, what was wrong there, he talked about his daughter, he talked about how his wife had fought against lyrics in music and all the rest of that. And in the end it seemed to me that Governor Bush was really not quite prepared for this onslaught and that he ended up looking a little beaten.

CONAN: All right. Elizabeth Arnold, a lot of people were saying that Vice President Gore needed to do something.


You know, I'm going to stay away from the handicapping and the winners and losers, Neal. I think what we really--you know, one thing that needs to be pointed out is what these guys were really trying to do. Three weeks out both candidates were appealing to those who haven't made up their minds. With the exception of family farms and affirmative action, I don't think much new ground was covered tonight. In fact, I heard a lot of the same statements in response to the same questions, but from the very outset, it was clear what each candidate was trying to do. The very first question, the Patients Bill of Rights, Gore tried to make a stark contrast between himself and Bush. Bush used the question to say he united Democrats and Republicans in Texas on the issue. Clearly, Bush wanted to look tonight like the great uniter who will put politics aside, an outsider opposed to big government. It was clearly an appeal to Independents and undecideds sick of partisan bickering. Gore, on the other hand, wanted to make it clear there's a difference between the two of them. He said that over and over again, that he's the candidate who will fight for working families, take on special interests, also an appeal to those still trying to make up their minds. It really sort of depends on how many undecideds were tuning in and how best the two reached them.

CONAN: Andy Kohut, did you see certain issues and demographic groups popping up in their references? Any attempt to skew towards the demographics identified in opinion polls?

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): I don't think so much the demographics but certainly the themes. I think Governor Bush was trying to make meaningful people's reservations about Gore's character, about his being too partisan, being less politically honest and moving it away from `it annoys you and there's something you don't like about it' to `it's going to get in the way of progress.' And this sort of builds on what Elizabeth was saying about seeing--defining himself as more conciliatory, more able to get things done because of Vice President Gore's problems with being partisan, being divisive. And on the other hand, I thought that Gore brought back populism. You know, the populism theme that worked so well for him in August and early September re-emerged and he kept restating--trying to restate the differences. I think they both sort of fell apart when they get into that, `Yes, he will,' `No, I won't,' dialogue because undecided voters, no matter what their demographics, sort of are confused by it.

SCHORR: I think that's right. I thought a representative moment of this evening was reached on a question of affirmative action when the vice president did something the rules forbid, which is directly to address Governor Bush. And in the course of doing that, he showed some of his old debating skills and forcing him into a corner and forcing him to say that affirmative action the way you define it, maybe I'm not for it, but he was clearly very uncomfortable.

The other thing I'd like to say... ARNOLD: Dan, I...

SCHORR: Yes, go ahead.

ARNOLD: Sorry. I was just going to totally agree with you on that one. On the one hand, it made it look like Bush was evasive. But, on the other hand, Gore had to look really pushy to make that point.

SCHORR: Yeah, but I think he was willing to be pushy. I think he tried once being pushy and they didn't like it. They he tried once being not pushy. That didn't work well at all, so I think he's gone back to being his real pushy self.

Mr. KOHUT: But he was better mannered in his aggressiveness and he wasn't so disparaging of Bush. At least that's the way it seemed to me and I think maybe that's the way it may seem to voters. I mean, he went on the attack without perhaps risking the backlash that he felt in the first debate.

CONAN: In these three debates, what have we learned about these two men in terms of how they would act as president of the United States? We've heard a lot, particularly in the second debate, about foreign and military policy, some of that again tonight, but most of tonight obviously focused on domestic issues.

Elizabeth Arnold, what kind of presidents would these guys be?

ARNOLD: You know, Neal, I actually think, although people thought it was the more boring of the three, I thought we learned the most about what kind of presidents these two would make in the second debate, when half of the debate was physically taken up with questions about foreign policy, how the US should be perceived. But you really had to sit there and listen to follow-up after follow-up and not change channels and watch the baseball game to get any of that. Tonight we really didn't have that sense. A lot of the same questions were asked and both candidates launched back into the same phrases--in fact, sometimes unconnected phrases--from their stump speeches that, you know, maybe people wouldn't realize they're from the stump speeches and it was kind of hard to follow some of them. I don't think you have that sense in tonight's debate at all and it was much more sort of a point, counterpoint, and charges and countercharges and stump speeches.

SCHORR: I think that's right, Elizabeth. You know, there were 15 questions, if I counted them, asked in all and practically all of the questions were--the first three are on health, the next two are on education. There was very, very little about international problems and you would expect at a time where we had this great explosion in Aden against an American ship, when the president is just back from trying to restore something like a peace process and stop all the fighting, that there might be something more. There was one about how you would deal with the Middle East crisis if you were president. If these people who were chosen by Gallup are a representative group, Americans are still very much interested in what's happening in America.

Mr. KOHUT: Neal, I think Gore's message was, this is going to be a replay of the Clinton years without President Clinton. President Clinton's name never came up once in this debate.

CONAN: But one suggestion was there when he spoke, `I will restore honor and dignity to the White House.'

Mr. KOHUT: That was Governor Bush.

SCHORR: By Governor Bush, yes. And that was kind of the only thing that went into the troubles of the past year was that one line from Governor Bush.

CONAN: But in general, would you regard both of these as status quo candidates? That there are differences in policy and perhaps one is more aggressive internationally than the other but pretty much status quo?

SCHORR: Well, I was left confused when the vice president announced that he was going to spend more money for the military than Governor Bush was. I thought they were adopting each other's lines at one point. But I thought it was very, very interesting that the governor decided that that was a good time to talk about not spending too much money. I did not expect ever to hear that from any Republican candidate.

ARNOLD: Well, again, similarly, if you look at their ads right now, we're three weeks out. They're looking for undecided votes, Independent swing voters, people who don't like party IDs, party labels. And so, you know, you saw a lot of that. You couldn't tell which was the Republican and which was the Democrat and that was intentional.

CONAN: And the Independents tend to not like bickering, which is why they're Independents in the first place.

ARNOLD: Right.

CONAN: Andy Kohut, as you've gone through the analysis of the numbers, again, it's almost the same question I put to Steve Inskeep, who are these people who are uncommitted at this point?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, they're mostly middle-income voters. They're mostly suburbanites. They're mostly mothers. There are many mothers who are undecided. There are many older men who are undecided. They are people who are pushed and pulled by the pros and the cons of each of these candidates and they cannot make up their mind as to which way--how to evaluate the very mixed product that they're being offered by both candidates.

CONAN: And they...

SCHORR: You...

CONAN: Go ahead, Dan. I'm sorry.

SCHORR: I just wanted to ask you, what is the latest you have on the percentage of undecided or uncommitted voters, plus those voters who may have decided but may change their mind?

Mr. KOHUT: I think it's still about a fourth of the electorate as we sit here three weeks before the election. At least one in four voters are either flat-out undecided.

SCHORR: And so if you're told that one is 2 percent ahead of the other, or 3 percent ahead of the other, that is practically meaningless, isn't it?

Mr. KOHUT: Particularly given the fact that the lead has gone back and forth. You have to say that, unless there's some decisive trend that comes out of this debate, which I suspect not, we're going to see this indecision and this softness in people's attitudes go right through Election Day. And they're going to be compelled to choose because November 7th is the last day they can make a choice.

SCHORR: You mentioned it, but to what extent do you think that people decide on the basis of these three debates, or four debates with the vice president?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, you know, I don't think these debates have materially changed things. They've probably reinforced a lot of attitudes rather than created some new ideas and they may have stiffened the indecision.

CONAN: Elizabeth.

ARNOLD: Sure. I don't know if Andy would agree with me on this or not, but, you know, sometimes debates have--they do sort of freeze a moment in time and people's opinions of candidates. I don't think any of the debates have done that. I think declaring a winner or loser and sort of the inputs of analysis can be sort of underestimated, although most people think that Gore was far more informed and better on his feet than Bush in the first two debates and we in the media talked so much about Gore's shifting styles and how Bush did better than expected. The general impression of those who didn't watch the debates but heard about them is that Bush won them both hands-down, so I think that there's really a lot of sort of misinformation or misanalysis or just people out there--I heard two guys on the plane talking today. Neither of them had seen any of the debates, but they thought that it was, you know, hands-down Bush and I just don't think the debates have done what they have done in the past, which is sort of freeze impressions of both candidates. I don't think we're at that point yet and I think three weeks is going to be a lifetime.

CONAN: Well, with that I will conclude this part of the conversation with the most important observation and that is the darks suits. This time, however, Mr. Bush wore a blue shirt and a red tie. It was Gore with the white shirt and the red tie. And with that, I will thank all three of you, NPR's Daniel Schorr and Elizabeth Arnold and Andy Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

SCHORR: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You're listening to coverage of the final presidential debate from NPR News.

Recap of presidential candidates' third debate

NEAL CONAN, host:To recap the debate, PBS broadcaster Jim Lehrer chose questions from 130 submitted by audience members who then read their own questions themselves. The first question went to Gore and asked how he felt about HMOs overriding medical care decisions. Mr. Gore said it was wrong and that he supported a Patients Bill of Rights, specifically the Dingell-Norwood bill, in the Congress. Mr. Bush said he had passed a good bipartisan bill protecting patients in Texas and did not want such laws overridden by national legislation. Mr. Gore then strode closer to the Texas governor and asked about the Dingell-Norwood bill. Mr. Bush dismissed that as a Washington style question, overly concerned about process and who gets his name on which bill. He said he opposed a national health-care plan. `I trust people,' he said, `I don't trust the federal government.' The vice president said he was willing to move toward a national plan for universal coverage but did not think the federal government ought to do all of it.

One woman asked how to make parents more responsible for their children's education. George Bush said testing and wider choice in schools could lead to greater accountability and parental involvement. He said the federal government should spend more on schools but that that control should remain at the local level. Mr. Gore said he wanted all American schools to be world class and not just a few. He said there should be 100,000 new teachers recruited in public schools and help for communities where bond issues may fail because parents are no longer in the majority.

The two clashed sharply on taxes and spending. Gore said Bush would devote more money to the tax cut for the top 1 percent than he would devote to spending on health, education and the military combined. The governor said everyone who paid taxes ought to get a cut and that Al Gore's tax cut plan would only help those the government favored.

When asked what they would bring to managing the crisis in the Middle East, Bush said he had been a leader. He said he would have the vision, the willingness to stand by friends and the credibility to be effective. Gore stressed his experience in the Army, in the Congress and in the White House. Al Gore said he had supported higher military pay and investments in military technology. Bush said if it were all a spending contest, he would come in second. But he said readiness had suffered in recent years, in part because the US had deployed forces too widely and in situations where the mission was not clear or compelling.

One questioner asked the governor about the Brady handgun bill which requires background checks at sale. Bush said he supported trigger locks but mostly wanted people who use guns illegally to be held accountable for their acts. The vice president said he favored the Brady Bill and other limits on handguns but he said his proposals would not affect hunters or sportsmen or rifle collectors.

Gore denied Bush's charge that he wanted a bigger federal government. He said the federal government was now the smallest since the Kennedy administration and that it was the Texas state government that had been growing. Both men said they wanted American farmers to get a better price for their crops. Gore suggested changes in federal farm policy. Bush focused on foreign markets. George Bush also said he would eliminate the estate tax, which he said forced families to sell their farms for taxes. Al Gore said he favored eliminating the tax for 80 percent of farms but not for the wealthiest.

Both men said they favored filters and other measures to enable parents to monitor what their children are watching or hearing in the media. Both men said they supported greater diversity but Bush said that if affirmative action meant quotas, he was against it. Gore said he, too, opposed quotas, but that affirmative action was meaningful without them.

And a man asked if the two would keep their campaign promises if elected. Each vowed that he would.

(Credits given)

CONAN: Join us for continued coverage of this evening's debate tomorrow on "Morning Edition" and right now online. Our Web address is Good evening from Washington. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Analysis

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