Bitter exchanges open presidential debate

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The Independent Online
GEORGE BUSH and Bill Clinton kicked off their first television debate last night with bitter exchanges over the Arkansas Governor's 'character', the President assailing his Democratic challenger for alleged organisation of rallies against the Vietnam war, and Mr Clinton accusing his rival of virtual McCarthyism.

Governor Clinton's involvement in the rallies two decades ago was 'just wrong', Mr Bush declared. But Mr Clinton retorted with a reference to the President's father. 'When Senator Joseph McCarthy went around the country (in the 1950s) attacking people for their lack of patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush,' he said. 'Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country.'

But as the 90-minute debate got under way, it was the third candidate, Ross Perot, who delivered the sharpest lines, often seeming in tacit alliance with Mr Clinton in his attacks on 12 years of Republican rule. Mr Bush stressed his experience and his foreign policy successes. But Mr Perot made light of that: 'I've no experience in running up a dollars 4.5 trillion debt. I've no experience in Congressional gridlock. But if you want experience in getting things done, I've got a lot of that.'

As Mr Bush entered the debate, his grip on the Presidency looked weaker than ever. Polls showed him still running a distant second to Mr Clinton. New allegations are swirling about his government's pre-1990 dealings with Iraq, while his efforts to regain the campaign initiative founder.

A CNN tracking poll yesterday showed the President 18 points behind Mr Clinton, even worse than recent surveys giving the Democrat a nationwide lead of between 10 and 15 points. Separate state polls in Georgia and Michigan, both 'must-wins' for Mr Bush, put him six and 19 points behind respectively.