The 'polite debate' has quips but no snarling

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The Independent US

America's vice-presidential candidates went head to head in their first and only televised debate of the 2000 election - and had much of their nationwide audience wishing that they, and not the nominees, were running for the top job. In an encounter that was quickly dubbed the "polite debate", Senator Joe Lieberman for the Democrats and former defense secretary, Dick Cheney for the Republicans disputed issues such as taxation and pensions, but without the snarling one-upmanship exhibited by their running-mates two nights earlier.

America's vice-presidential candidates went head to head in their first and only televised debate of the 2000 election - and had much of their nationwide audience wishing that they, and not the nominees, were running for the top job. In an encounter that was quickly dubbed the "polite debate", Senator Joe Lieberman for the Democrats and former defense secretary, Dick Cheney for the Republicans disputed issues such as taxation and pensions, but without the snarling one-upmanship exhibited by their running-mates two nights earlier.

"The candidates just seemed better informed and better grounded than Al Gore and George Bush," was a common reaction. In so far as anyone won, the consensus was for Dick Cheney, who impressed many with sheer good-humoured competence. "I think the Republicans might have done running him, not Bush, for President," said a slightly abashed Republican as he left the hall.

At times, the candidates almost seemed to enjoy the experience. In a discussion that ranged from the projected budget surplus to marriage between gays, they even exchanged a few quips.

When Mr Lieberman essayed a reprise of Ronald Reagan's line about people being better off now than - in this case - eight years before, and noted that Mr Cheney (who had gone from his defense secretary's post to head an oil company) was now considerably better off, Mr Cheney was ready. "And I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it," he retorted with a smile.

And when Mr Lieberman - his declared income last year far from the millionaire class - joshed that he could see his wife thinking that maybe he should join the private sector, Mr Cheney whacked back: "I'm trying to help you do just that, Joe."

In almost every respect, this was a counterpoint to the nervously acrimonious confrontation between Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush in Boston on Tuesday: small town versus big city; round-table format versus distant lecterns; questions answered, not ignored. In sum, it was an encounter as civil and serious as the small Kentucky town of Danville, whose Centre College won the honour of hosting the debate against fierce competition from many bigger and richer institutions.

The whole town had come to a halt for the day. Shop windows were adorned with patriotic bunting and election memorabilia: stuffed elephants and donkeys in red, white and blue, souvenir badges and campaign placards - often for both parties. Cafes offered big screen televisions and debate-watching parties. Schools closed, and from mid-afternoon people flocked to the college park in the warm, Indian-summer sunshine with their folding chairs and boxed pizza for a programme of live music and film clips - the Kennedy and Reagan inauguration speeches among others - to set the mood. They stood for the "Star Spangled Banner" and "My Old Kentucky Home," accompanied by a video showing the woods and fields, tranquil water lilies and prancing horses - and faded out on scenes from the Kentucky Derby.

As darkness fell, the audience of several thousand sat quietly, following the proceedings intently. They laughed at the quips, andcheered their candidates' closing statements.

Despite a rule against "placards or posters on sticks", supporters of the Green Party's Ralph Nader, who has not been allowed to participate in the debates, negotiated admission and stood in silent protest in front of the central screen.

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