The following editorial appeared in today's Dallas Morning News:
Against a backdrop of tragedy, Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore squared off Tuesday in a debate that barely remained civil but delineated sharp differences between the two candidates. The final presidential exchange shaped up this way:
Mr. Bush needed to reassure voters that his substantive performance in the second debate reflected the real George W. Bush, the one they could trust to handle the complexities of the Oval Office.
The Texas Republican did that. He spoke forcefully and repeatedly about his desire to change Washington's culture, develop a bipartisan government and prepare programs like Social Security and Medicare for a new generation. He appeared fair-minded in answering questions about the death penalty and how tax cuts would help working families. At times Mr. Bush still relied on buzzwords to answer specific questions. If it seemed as if Mr. Gore wanted a minute more each go-around, it sometimes seemed as if Mr. Bush wanted a minute less.
After veering between overbearing and subdued in the first two debates, Al Gore needed to reassure voters that he has an authentic core, one that he can draw upon when the pressures of the presidency mount.
The vice president improved upon his earlier performances by speaking with a more authoritative voice. Although he played the proud professor several times, he brought home his pledge to fight against insurance companies and to champion the middle class. He spoke particularly firmly about how he would push Hollywood to improve the films and music it produces.
Both candidates started the St. Louis debate with a respectful tone, acknowledging the death Monday of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
But then the sparring started. The two nominees jabbed each other over how they would improve health insurance. And the punches continued over taxes, Medicare, Social Security and education. Both candidates obviously knew this was their last time to make their differences known before a national audience.
Americans now have a clear choice. Mr. Bush wants to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, accelerate school reforms and rethink our military capabilities. He presents himself as the candidate of change, appearing more like a reforming Theodore Roosevelt than a stand-pat Dwight Eisenhower.
Mr. Gore wants to stay the course, urging that America's economic expansion can best be preserved through government action and retiring the debt. In railing against health insurers and pledging a new campaign finance system, he presents himself as a pugilistic populist, more a fighting William Jennings Bryan than a ruling-class Franklin Roosevelt.
Al Gore: "If you want someone who will fight for middle-class families, then I want to fight for you."
George W. Bush: "If this were a spending contest, I'd come in second."