St. Louis — Vice President Al Gore attacked George W. Bush as an ally of the rich and powerful Tuesday night, but the Texas governor rebutted in climactic campaign debate that his rival was a "big spender" in the mold of Democratic liberals who once sought the White House and lost.
"He proposed more than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis combined," Bush said of two Democratic presidential candidates rejected by the voters in 1984 and 1988.
The Texas governor and the vice president, locked in a close race for the White House, argued domestic and foreign policy issues for 90 minutes in a town hall-style format. It was their third encounter in two weeks, and their last before they face judgment at the polls on Nov. 7.
In their final summations, the two men stripped their appeals to their essentials.
"I have kept my word," said Gore, who has served as Bill Clinton's vice president for two terms. He mentioned his service in Vietnam, a strong marriage of 30 years. He said the nation has experienced record prosperity and reduced crime in recent years, and pledged to build on it. "I'll make you one promise here. You ain't seen nothing yet and I will keep that promise."
Under the rules, Republican Bush got the last word. "I think after three debates the good people of this country understand there is a difference," he said. "The difference between a big federal government and someone who is coming from outside Washington who will trust individuals."
Gore has slipped slightly in the polls since the first campaign debate Oct. 3 in Boston, and from the opening moments, the vice president bore in on Bush as a defender of the privileged. He said the Texas governor was allied with insurance companies rather than patients, for example, and that his tax cut was tilted heavily toward the wealthy.
"If you want someone who will support ... the big drug companies, this is your man," the vice president said of Bush, standing a few feet away from his campaign rival on a red-carpeted debate stage.
"If you want someone who will fight for you ... then I want to fight for you," Gore added.
Most polls show Bush ahead of the vice president by a scant point or two, and the debate at the field house at Washington University represented the last, best chance for one man or the other to gain the support of a large critical bloc of undecided voters.
In a debate that ranged broadly over campaign topics, a question about the death penalty provided an emotional moment.
Bush was told by one questioner, a black man, that in an earlier debate he had seemed proud of the fact that Texas had executed more criminals than any other state. "I'm not proud of that," Bush said in soft-spoken reply. "Some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of Texas is to deal with those cases." Several times Bush referred to his questioner as "sir," and several times, stressed he wasn't proud, merely carrying out his responsibilities as governor. In all, Texas has executed 145 inmates since Bush took office in 1995.
The debate began with a moment of reflection in memory of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, killed along with his son and a campaign aide Monday night when his small plane went down in bad weather. Bush and Gore both bowed their heads and closed their eyes when moderator Jim Lehrer asked for a brief period of silence.
With the somber moment over, Gore seemed eager to carry the fight to his Republican rival in a debate that permitted members of the audience to ask questions.
When the first question was asked about legislation pending in Congress to strengthen the hand of patients dealing with their HMOs, Gore said, "I support it and the governor does not."
Moments later, Bush rebutted: "Actually, Mr. Vice president, it's not true. I do support a national patients bill of rights." He added that as governor of Texas, he had worked with Republicans and Democrats to win passage of a law that grants women greater access to gynecological care; gives patients greater choice over their doctor; and permits lawsuits against insurance companies after an external review.
"It requires a different leadership style to do it though," Bush said. "You see, you have to put partisanship aside, and that's what I did in my state."
Bush and Gore also disagreed on another aspect of health care, the vice president saying the nation should "move step by step toward universal health coverage, but I do not think that the government should do all of it."
Bush responded moments later, "I am absolutely opposed to a national care plan. I don't want the federal government making decisions for consumers or providers." And he reminded the audience in the hall and watching on television of President Clinton's failed national health insurance proposal in 1994.
The two men clashed at length over economics in a fast-paced debate, prodded by questions from an audience of uncommitted voters from the St. Louis area.
Bush said Gore is proposing the "largest increase in federal spending in years, and there's just not going to be enough money" to pay for it.
Gore said Bush was wrong, adding his rival's $1.3 billion tax plan would lavish relief on the wealthy while shortchanging critical domestic programs.
"If you want somebody who believes that we were better off eight years ago than we are now and that we ought to go back to the kinds of policies that we had back then, emphasizing tax cuts mainly for the wealthy, here is your man," the vice president said.
"If you want somebody who fight for you and will fight for middle class tax cuts. then I am your man. I want to be," Gore added.
But Bush insisted he wasn't wrong, and said Gore's spending proposals were huge.
"This is a big spender and he ought to be proud of it," Bush said of Gore.
The decision to permit questions from the audience created a more freewheeling series of exchanges between Gore and Bush than in their earlier two debates, and they interrupted one another at will. Gore seemed slightly more eager to depart from agreed-upon debate rules, so much so that at one point, Lehrer cautioned him good-naturedly that he was violating the agreed-upon format.
Moments later, out of time for a comment he was making, Gore asked if he would "say one more thing."
"No sir," said Lehrer, and steered the proceedings in another direction.