Mr. Gore in Top Form
                By BOB HERBERT
             This time Al Gore got it right, and not a moment too soon.

          People were starting to say of George W.
          Bush: Well, he might not know the Middle
          East from the Big East, but he's a nice guy. He
          might not know subliminal from subliminable,
          but he's likeamable. And, hey, I can't locate
          Yemen on a map, either.

          Turned off by Al Gore's performance in the first two debates, a fair
          number of voters began moving toward Mr. Bush, making excuses and
          weird rationalizations along the way. Some argued that if Mr. Bush were
          to become president and the country found itself in a tight spot, he'd have
          plenty of experienced people available to bail him out his dad; his vice
          president, Dick Cheney; his secretary of state, Colin Powell, etc.

          Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations! Why should anyone be
          afraid to set high standards for Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore, and demand that
          they meet them? They're running for president.

          At the debate Tuesday night, Al Gore was the best he's been since his
          acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. He was
          knowledgeable and comfortable discussing a wide range of complex
          issues, including health care, Social Security and tax cuts. You can agree
          or disagree with his position on any issue, but you cannot argue that Mr.
          Gore does not understand the issue. With Mr. Bush, you're never quite sure.

          The tone of the debate was set early. Mr. Gore was much better
          prepared than Mr. Bush to discuss a so-called patients' bill of rights.
          "Doctors are giving prescriptions, they're recommending treatments, and
          then their recommendations are being overruled by H.M.O.'s and
          insurance companies," said Mr. Gore. "That is unacceptable."

          He said he supports bipartisan legislation sponsored by
          Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and Representative
          Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican to establish a national
          patients' bill of rights.

          Mr. Bush said he, too, supports a patients' bill of rights. But though he
          was asked twice if he supported the Dingell-Norwood bill, he never
          answered. Instead, he scoffed at the whole governmental process,
          saying, "There's this kind of Washington D.C. focus well, it's in this
          committee, or it's got this sponsor."

          Well, yes, governor. That's how the federal government works. And it
          will continue to work that way, even if you are elected president.

          Time and again during the debate Mr. Bush appeared baffled by the
          specifics of one issue or another. During a discussion of affirmative
          action, Mr. Gore asked, "Are you for what the Supreme Court says is a
          constitutional way of having affirmative action?"

          Mr. Bush turned to Jim Lehrer, the moderator, his facial expression and
          body language all but begging Mr. Lehrer to save him by declaring there
          was no time left for him to answer.

          "Jim " said Mr. Bush.

          Mr. Lehrer said, "Let's go onto another "

          Mr. Gore said, quietly and devastatingly, "I think that speaks for itself."

          The governor's worst moment came in response to a woman who asked,
          "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 24-year- old
          single person with no dependents?"

          The answer was bizarre. It meandered this way and that until it lost any
          semblance of coherence. Mr. Bush said everyone would get tax relief
          under his plan. He went on to say, "I think also what you need to think
          about is not the immediate but what about Medicare?" He said, "You get
          a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options."
          He talked about Medicare people being stuck in a time warp.

          He said, "You're going to live in a peaceful world." He said, "You'll be in
          a world, hopefully, that's more educated, so it's less likely you'll be
          harmed in your neighborhood, seeing an educated child is one much
          more likely to be hopeful and optimistic." And so on.

          It was astonishing. When he finally reached the end of this positively
          Olympian feat of convolution, I wondered what could possibly come next.
          Surely someone would comment.

          But no one seemed fazed. Mr. Lehrer said, "Governor, the next question
          is for you and Leo Anderson will ask it. Mr. Anderson."

          Mr. Bush smiled. "Hi, Leo," he said. "You want a mike?"
 

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