A Useful Square-Off

The vice-presidential debate was no less civil than the Clinton-Dole showdown. But Al Gore and Jack Kemp did plunge deeper into policy differences than their ticket-mates. They helped define the choices facing voters.

On the crucial subject of race relations, for instance, the candidates for second in command broke new campaign ground. Affirmative action was the specific question, and Mr. Gore quickly chimed in with the Clinton couplet, "Mend it, don't end it." He then went on to criticize Mr. Kemp for shifting positions to match Bob Dole's support for California's Proposition 209, which would eliminate consideration of race in state hiring and admissions policy.

Kemp defended his life-long stand for equality of opportunity - not of "reward" or "outcome." He tied racial tensions to economic deprivation and shifted quickly to his leitmotif for the evening: that a more robust, growing economy is key to solving a wide range of problems.

As with many subjects, Kemp scored with sincerity and a clear commitment to positive change. Gore, however, won a debating point, since Kemp never really did get around to explaining his conversion to the California initiative.

Abortion was another sensitive issue the candidates fielded. Kemp boldly acknowledged the wide divergence of opinion in the country - providing almost a model of Republican "tolerance" - and made a moving plea for civil behavior among those with conflicting views. Gore predictably raised the Republican Party platform plank calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. Kemp didn't defend the plank but advocated the use of persuasion, not coercion, to curb abortion. One could almost hear a groan from the religious right.

As with the presidential hopefuls, however, economic policy was the most trodden ground. While voters can't doubt Kemp's devotion to the tax-cut gospel, many may retain their skepticism that this economic miracle - slashed taxes, doubled growth, bountiful revenues - can be worked. The same skepticism likely greeted Kemp's promise to "repeal" the federal tax code. Isn't there a little matter of getting such items through Congress?

Gore, for his part, was given to bland repetitions of the administration's economic scorecard - 10 million new jobs, etc. That kind of pat economic optimism probably met its share of doubts too, and Kemp was right to emphasize the growing economic disparities among Americans.

The Gore-Kemp matchup may not have changed many minds. But it did confirm that today, unlike much of the past, the No. 2 job in America is drawing serious, qualified contenders.

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