Hanover, NH (CNSNews.com) -Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley made their first joint New Hampshire appearance Wednesday night, in an hour-long question-and-answer session at Dartmouth College - a conversation that got going before the official 8 o'clock start of the televised meeting.
The much-hyped event, sponsored by CNN and WMUR-TV, the state's ABC affiliate, involved 300 people from the Hanover area, who were chosen at large by the college's Rockefeller Center. Voters submitted their questions in advance and the queries were screened by WMUR-TV.
This was not a traditional debate format. Neither candidate was given the opportunity to respond to the other's answers, a procedure that Gore and then Bradley almost immediately violated.
Queries ran the gamut from health care to education, school violence, voter cynicism, campaign finance reform, the circumstances under which each would use American troops, homosexual rights, presidential leadership and more.
Bradley was asked to defend his decision to leave the Senate, after his party was reduced to minority status, while Gore was asked to discuss the biggest mistake he made in his long political career.
Bradley told the gathering he ended his 18-year Senate career because "it was time for me to move on...I engaged outside of Washington, in a dialogue with the American people."
The former National Basketball Association star said his time away from the political arena led to the decision to seek the presidency. "After two years, I made the decision I could improve the quality of life for the American people...I don't think I'd be running for President, had I not taken those two years."
Flashing a little humor - something he's not done very much on the campaign trail - Gore responded to the question about his biggest mistake this way: "There are so many mistakes to choose from," he said, finally singling out his "choice of words" in describing himself as the guy who invented the Internet.
Asked about President Clinton's personal behavior, including Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Gore responded, "I understand the disappointment and anger you feel toward President Clinton. I feel it myself...but he is my friend and I took an oath to serve my country through thick and thin."
Gore said that while many people are annoyed with Clinton's behavior, most want to move on and look to the future. (The questioner insisted the Clinton-Lewinsky affair has made voters more cynical about politics in general.)
Bradley passed up a chance to criticize the vice president, when asked to comment on questionable Clinton-Gore fund-raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign. Chuckling and casting a wry glance at Gore, Bradley said "some irregularities" took place and then made a pitch for campaign finance reform.
Asked to describe "the most compelling reason to vote for you," Bradley responded, "The only reason to vote for me would be if you believed my leadership would improve the quality of life...and if you agreed with my vision for the country and shared my values."
Bradley said his vision includes health insurance for all, campaign finance reform, reducing the number of children living in poverty and racial unity.
In response to a healthcare question, Bradley defended his proposal to provide universal healthcare coverage. He insisted his $65-billion-plus plan would help most Americans who can't afford medical care.
But Gore, before responding to a non-healthcare question, seized the opportunity to distinguish himself from Bradley, insisting that Bradley's proposal would cost $1.2 trillion. "That's more than the entire surplus over the next ten years," the vice president said.
Gore admits that Bradley's plan would give health insurance to "a few more people" than his own plan, but he said the price was too high, casting himself as the more fiscally prudent of the two candidates.
In response, Bradley said "It's a big problem and needs a big solution," setting himself up as the big-idea man.
Asked about same-sex marriage, Gore was quick to note that both he and Bradley opposed it, although Gore said he does support "legal protections," for homosexuals and their partners, while Bradley said he supports homosexuals serving in the military. Bradley also said he would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make homosexuals "a protected class."
On most issues, it was difficult to tell one man from the other, and that includes the topic of education. Bradley said the time had come to show "a willingness to experiment...a willingness to try new things."
Noting his endorsement by the National Education Association, which strongly opposes voucher programs, Gore faulted Bradley for a Senate vote supporting vouchers, calling it "a mistake."
"It's clear to me there's not much difference in their positions," said one member of the audience. "The real difference is in their style. Bradley seemed at ease. Gore seemed to have to work at it," said one.
"Bradley won because he got himself on the same stage with a sitting vice president," said another. "That will go a long way toward people around the nation seeing his as a legitimate challenger."
"Bradley did exactly what he had to do. He had an hour to introduce himself to a national television audience. He came across as reflective and thoughtful," said a Dartmouth senior. "I liked the way he countered Gore's criticism on the cost of his health care plan."
"In the end, these guys are really two peas in the same very liberal pod. There's not an iota of difference between them. They'll both raise taxes and keep big government humming right along," said another student.