ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Vice President Al Gore and Jack Kemp debated politely but pointedly Wednesday night, agreeing to leave character issues aside but differing sharply over economic policy and President Clinton's leadership abroad.
"This economy is overtaxed, over-regulated," Kemp said in making the case for GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole's plan to cut taxes 15 percent across the board. Kemp said the economy was growing a feeble 2.5 percent a year under Clinton. "Bob Dole and I believe we can do a lot better."
Gore, in turn, said repeatedly that Dole and Kemp were offering a "risky $550 billion tax scheme" that would "blow a hole in the deficit and cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment."
Asked if Dole would seek to change laws that make abortion legal in the United States, Kemp did not give a direct answer. He said "every human life is precious" and that "there should be all of the protection that we can give to an unborn human being" but he did not endorse any specific restrictions. "This country should not be torn asunder over this debate," Kemp said.
Gore was more specific. He said Kemp had voted 47 out of 47 times while in Congress to support restrictions on abortion. And he noted that Dole's Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.
Given a chance to rebut, Kemp said a "constitutional amendment would not pass," a concession that could anger some Christian conservatives supporting the Republican ticket. Kemp did forcefully criticize Clinton for vetoing legislation banning certain late-term abortions.
Many of the salvos between Kemp and Gore closely tracked the positions staked out by Clinton and Dole in their first debate Sunday night.
Kemp, for example, said Clinton and Gore were practicing "demagoguery" in trying to frighten older Americans by claiming that Dole's budget plan would require devastating Medicare cuts. "It is disgraceful, the campaign being waged to frighten the American people," Kemp said.
But Gore did not budge. "The word scary has been used," he said of the Republican position. He continued by promising, "We will save Medicare" in a second Clinton term.
For activists in both parties, there was an inescapable subplot to the vice presidential debate. Gore, 48, is all but certain to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in four years. And if Dole loses to Clinton, the 61-year-old Kemp would be considered the top early prospect for the next Republican nomination.
The first half hour of the debate was dominated by economic and tax policy, and then the candidates moved on to discuss abortion, Bosnia, Haiti and a host of other issues.
"The problem with the foreign policy of this administration is there is none," Kemp said. "We have learned over the years that weakness is provocative."
Gore begged to differ, saying the administration had brought peace, however tenuous, to Bosnia and Haiti and was working to end bitter conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Mideast. "President Bill Clinton has shown tremendous courage, vision, wisdom and leadership," Gore said.
Early on, Gore tried his hand at humor, offering Kemp this deal: "If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement."
"It's a deal," Kemp quickly agreed.
Dole was criticized by some Republicans after the first debate for not attacking Clinton on administration ethical lapses. Moderator Jim Lehrer opened the 90-minute debate by asking Kemp if he agreed with the critics.
"In my opinion, it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally," Kemp said. He said the Republican ticket wanted a campaign characterized by "civility and respect and integrity and decency."
Gore thanked Kemp for that answer, and from there the debate proceeded politely, even as the two men differed sharply over many issues.
Gore promoted Clinton's plan for targeted tax cuts to help low- and middle-class families pay for college. Kemp said government should not engage in "social engineering" by picking winners and losers through its tax policy. Gore put Kemp on the defensive by noting the former Bush administration housing secretary had differed with conservatives in his own party by defending affirmative action programs.
Gore noted that Kemp had criticized a California ballot initiative rolling back affirmative action programs but then changed his position and spoken in favor of the measure after being selected to share the ticket with Dole. Gore said he wished Kemp had convinced Dole to change his position instead.
"With all due respect, I do not believe Abraham Lincoln would have adopted Bob Dole's position to end all affirmative action," Gore said.
An overriding Kemp theme was that Clinton and Gore wanted the government to have too heavy a hand in every area of domestic policy, contrasting that with Dole's tax-cut push to make millions of dollars in job-creating capital available.
"He will call it trickle down, I call it Niagara Falls," Kemp said of Gore.
Gore's quick retort: "The problem is Mr. Dole and Mr. Kemp would put the American economy in a barrel and send it over Niagara Falls."
The prime-time debate was carried by three major broadcast networks. But there was competition on Fox, which carried the first game of the National League Championship series.
Excluded from the debate was the Reform Party's Pat Choate, denied a spot on the stage under the same ruling by the Commission on Presidential Debates that kept Ross Perot out of the exchange between Clinton and Dole.