Gore ahead on points but Bush stays in the race

Polls give Vice-President the edge in third and final television clash, which left rival looking fidgety and sometimes lost for an answer
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The Independent US

Both United States presidential candidates were invited to examine the hall at Washington University in St Louis where they were to debate against one another for a final time later on Tuesday evening. Al Gore stayed for about an hour, perching on his stool and fussing about camera angles. George W Bush walked in, looked around for a minute and then left.

Both United States presidential candidates were invited to examine the hall at Washington University in St Louis where they were to debate against one another for a final time later on Tuesday evening. Al Gore stayed for about an hour, perching on his stool and fussing about camera angles. George W Bush walked in, looked around for a minute and then left.

That is how they are. One is a crammer, who rests only when he has every fact and every detail burnt into his brain. The other is a seat-of-the-pants student, confident he will be fine when the test papers are before him. It is the front-of-the-class swot versus the cheery optimist who, if necessary, will wink at the examiner.

The question remains: which of the two is better served by their very different styles? When the debate gathered pace - this time in town-hall style, with questions from an audience in the round - Mr Gore was devastating in his command of the facts. He seemed, finally, to achieve the level of debating skill for which he has become renowned. The Texas Governor, by contrast, appeared unable sometimes to fill the two minutes allotted for each answer. He looked a little hunched and fidgety, sometimes almost whining to the moderator that his opponent was talking too much and breaking the debate rules. And yet, it was hard to be certain yesterday which of the pair had prevailed.

Instant polls did give an edge to the Vice-President. A CBS poll gave him the debate by a margin of 45-40 per cent while an ABC poll rated it a 41-41 per cent tie. But among independents, a key swing voter group, ABC said 47 per cent picked Mr Gore, against 33 per cent for Mr Bush. But then, polls declared Mr Gore the winner after the first debate too. And in the days that followed, the Texas Governor overtook him in national polls.

For Gore supporters, his loss of traction since the first debate - the two candidates appear now to be locked in a straight dead heat - is confounding. Their man clearly has more experience in Washington, more experience on foreign policy, and an impressive command of his own policy programmes. And he is campaigning on the back of eight years of unsurpassed economic growth.

The Vice-President hammered home the last point in St Louis and will continue to do so until election day on 7 November, starting with an economic speech in New York today. "If you want someone who believes we are better off eight years ago than we are now and that we ought to go back to the kinds of policies we had back then - emphasising tax cuts mainly for the wealthy - he is your man," Mr Gore said.

Mr Bush rambles. He ducked when challenged on Tuesday to give a clear definition of affirmative action. And when asked if it was true that his tax-cut proposal would disproportionately benefit the most wealthy 1 per cent of Americans, he answered almost blithely: "Of course, it does". But, like President Ronald Reagan before him, he seems, none the less, to be a communicator. His themes clearly separate him from Vice-President Gore and, in his own way, he gets them across.

Mr Gore will spend the budget surplus to enlarge the federal government and take choices away from voters. Mr Bush, by contrast, will reduce the intrusions of federal government and redirect the newfound money to the citizens. Mr Gore trusts government. Mr Bush trusts the people. He lays the same template over consideration of every issue: education, social security, the cost of prescription drugs.

He said it one last time in his final summation. "I think after the three debates, the good people of this country understand there is a difference of opinion. It's the difference between big federal government and somebody who's coming from outside of Washington who will trust individuals."

Those Gore spinners who swarmed the media after the debate closed had answers that could explain why Mr Bush seemed, in spite of everything, to be keeping pace with their man in the race. "Because he is a nice person," was the simple response of the Hollywood director Rob Reiner. And people don't actually like swots - aggressive and point-scoring.

Al Franken, a political comedian, suggested: "Clinton has made it look easy. If Clinton could do it with one hand tied behind his back, because they investigated him from day one, people are thinking, well, this guy Bush can do it too."

Others point to ideology: a large segment of voters will vote for Mr Bush, the one on the right, come what may.

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