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Clinton And Dole Stage First Debate As The Republican Seeks A Comeback

October 7, 1996 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ With just a month to Election Day, President Clinton and Bob Dole faced off Sunday night in a prime-time debate that offered the Republican challenger his best chance to launch an October comeback.

It was biggest event so far in the 1996 campaign, with Clinton determined to defend his record and make the case for a second term and Dole bent on putting the Democrat on the defensive with his message with his message of tax cuts and trustworthiness.

``We are better off than we were four years ago,″ Clinton told a rally as he previewed his overarching theme for the nationally televised debate. ``Four More Years!″ the appreciate crowd roared in approval.

Dole got his own rousing welcome at his Hartford hotel after a walk-through of the debate site. ``Looks good,″ Dole told the crowd before quipping, ``Think I’ll go, not certain yet. I got this far.″

The Bushnell Theater in downtown Hartford was the site for the first of two 90-minute October debates between Clinton and Dole, both one-on-one matchups because of a controversial decision to exclude Ross Perot.

Trailing by significant margins in most national and key state polls, Dole was running short of time to build support for a Republican campaign anchored on a program to cut taxes by 15 percent and a drumbeat of rhetoric that Clinton is a ``warmed over liberal″ hiding behind election-year conservative rhetoric.

Some aides urged Dole to make a dramatic debate announcement, perhaps that retired Gen. Colin Powell had agreed to serve as his secretary of state. As of early Sunday, however, Dole had rejected the proposal on grounds it would be viewed as a sign of desperation.

``I think the only surprise is I’m going to show up,″ Dole joked as he left his Washington apartment for the trip to Hartford.

Dole was determined to remind voters of what he considers Clinton’s failure in the war on drugs, and his campaign planned a theatrical surprise designed to spotlight administration ethical lapses _ bringing along former White House travel office director Billy Dale to take a front-row seat in hopes his presence would rattle Clinton.

The administration fired Dale in 1993 and accused him of financial irregularities, but he was acquitted at trial. Subsequent investigations discovered that Clinton associate Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer, pushed for the firings and tried to help a friend secure lucrative contracts for ferrying the media on presidential trips.

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Another of Dole’s invited guests was Frank Carafa, who served with Dole in World War II and helped rescue him after he was wounded by enemy fire on an Italy hillside. In contrast, Clinton avoided the Vietnam draft.

Clinton flew in from western New York, where he had retreated for debate preparations, playing cards with aides during the brief flight. ``He wanted to do one thing today that he could win for sure,″ White House press secretary Mike McCurry said with a grin.

For all the drama of debates, there is little in past campaigns to suggest they have served as breakthrough moments for trailing candidates. ``It’s not like a prize fight,″ said Michigan Gov. John Engler. Still, the Republican governor said it was critical for Dole to use his debate spotlight ``to begin a month of steady, steady progress that bears fruit on Election Day.″

Journalist Jim Lehrer of PBS was serving as moderator, and again on Oct. 16 when the Democratic incumbent and his Republican challenger debate a second and final time in San Diego. Lehrer also was presiding over Wednesday night’s debate between Vice President Al Gore and GOP nominee Jack Kemp.

Clinton and Dole had expected competition Sunday night from the major league baseball playoffs, but all the first-round series were settled Saturday. Still, polls suggested a smaller slice of the electorate was interested in watching than in 1992, when an estimated 66 million Americans tuned in to see Clinton spar with President Bush and independent Perot.

This year, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates decided Perot should not be allowed to participate, on grounds he did not have a realistic chance to win the presidency. Perot, stuck in low single digits in national polls, lost his suit to challenge his exclusion. Looking to get a piece of the spotlight, he appeared on television interview shows and purchased a 30-minute block of time on ABC to air one of his infomercials.

``We will be in this race to the end because I want the American people to vote their conscience,″ Perot said on CBS. He was harshly critical of Dole’s tax-cut plan, labeling it ``free candy″ designed to win votes but reckless in the context of deficit reduction. Roughly 400 Perot backers joined other protesters near the debate site, many holding American flags upside down as a sign of their displeasure.

Clinton has promoted roughly $110 billion in targeted tax cuts as a more responsible alternative to Dole’s $548 billion package, which the president asserts would require deep cuts in Medicare and education.

Clinton’s playbook called for promoting accomplishments of the past four years, including 10 million new jobs and other good economic news, while projecting ahead to what a second Clinton term would mean for working class Americans. Among his top proposals: tax incentives to make college education more affordable.

Many Republicans have criticized the Dole campaign for not sticking to a consistent message, but Dole in the last week or so has pushed one steady theme: that for all his centrist and conservative talk of late, the true Clinton is a liberal bent on raising taxes and expanding the reach of the federal government.

Kemp, appearing on NBC’s ``Meet the Press,″ offered a preview of Dole’s argument.

``He is defending the status quo,″ Kemp said of Clinton. ``And Bob Dole and Jack Kemp mean dramatic change in welfare, education, litigation, regulation″ and ``total reform of the U.S. tax code ...″

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