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Audience keeps debate kinder, gentler

Largely avoiding mudslinging, the presidential candidates were shamed into talking about their plans for the country Thursday night in a wide-ranging, nationally televised encounter with real, live voters.

The tone of the 90-minute question-and-answer session with voters was set early, when one audience member and then a second asked the candidates if they would stop trashing each other's character.

President Bush answered by telling a story about the day he shipped out for the Navy as an 18-year-old. His father told him to write his mother, serve his country and tell the truth.

"My father was an honor, duty, and country man," Bush said, returning to his frequent theme of questioning Democrat Bill Clinton's patriotism.

He then accused Clinton of pandering to voters by telling one set of voters one thing and another group another. "You can't turn the White House into the Waffle House," Bush said.

But few in the University of Richmond audience laughed.

Clinton easily played to their seriousness by saying he was "disturbed by the tone and tenor of this campaign."

"I'm not interested in his (Bush's) character," Clinton said. "I'm interested in changing the character of the presidency."

From then on, Bush, Clinton and independent Ross Perot mostly stuck to the issues, answering more than a dozen questions posed by members of an audience of 209 uncommitted Virginia voters. The candidates sat on blue padded stools, occasionally easing off their perches as they answered questions.

The meeting was the second of three encounters to be held before the Nov. 3 election. The third debate will be held Monday in East Lansing, Mich.

The members of the audience were selected by the Gallup Organization and they were allowed to ask whatever they liked. It was unlike the other general election debate, where the candidates were questioned by reporters.

"Anything goes," moderator Carole Simpson of ABC News told the crowd.

Bush, lagging behind Clinton in public opinion polls, was more aggressive than he was in his first debate on Sunday, but he did not provide the jolt that could cut the Democrats' lead. The president's campaign has been trying to plant seeds of doubt about Clinton's trustworthiness, but Thursday's crowd didn't seem open to much of that.

Meanwhile, Thursday's format was tailor-made for Clinton, who has proven himself a confident master of similar town meetings with voters during his 13-month campaign. He calmly gave point by point answers to his questions.

Perot, as he did in Sunday's debate, offered can-do business experience as a way to solve most of the nation's problems, but he provided few specifics. He did try to shake things up by offering to forgo his salary if elected to the White House. He also said he would serve only one, four-year term.

Early on the debate, the three men were asked about the deficit and taxes and whether they would agree to quit the presidency if they could not wipe out the deficit in four years.

"No, and I'll tell you why," Clinton responded. He went on to argue that a quick elimination of the $400-billion deficit would require drastic spending cuts and tax increases that would hurt the economy.

The Democrat pledged to cut the deficit by 50 percent and ask "wealthy and foreign corporations to pay their fair share."

Bush, on the other hand, said he opposes tax increases. He wants a balanced budget amendment, he told the audience, along with the power to cut specific projects from the budgets Congress sends him.

Much later, Clinton gently reminded the audience of Bush's broken 1988 campaign promise to avoid tax increases. ""I don't want you to read my lips and I sure don't want you to read his. I want you to read our plans," Clinton said.

Perot said Democrats and Republicans have shirked responsibility for the deficit. "What I'm looking for is who did it?" Perot said. "Somewhere out there is an extraterrestrial who's doing this to us."

Bush _ beset by the perception that he is out of touch _ seemed taken aback when one woman asked him how the deficit affected his life directly.

He replied that he wanted to be reassured that his grandchildren to afford an education.

When the woman seemed unsatisfied, Bush sounded defensive of his well-bred background when he tried to clarify her question. "Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn't affect them?" Bush asked.

"You ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear, and see what I see and read the mail I read and touch the people I touch from time to time," Bush said.

Bush said he recently attended a black church, where he read about teenage pregnancy in the bulletin. "I talk to parents. I mean, you got to care," he said. "I think in terms of the recession, of course you feel it when you're the president of the United States. That's why I'm trying to do something about it by stimulating exports, investing more, (and creating a) better education system."

When it came to his turn, Clinton took the opportunity to stride toward the audience.

"I see people in my state, middle class people, their taxes have gone up from Washington and their services have gone down while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts," Clinton said. "In my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names."

Clinton said the country is "in the grip of a failed economic theory" in the Reagan and Bush years. The election, he says, is about whether to discard that theory for his plan to use the government to create more jobs and to control health-care costs.

On other issues, Clinton and Perot said they favored a seven-day waiting period before someone can purchase a handgun. Bush refused to endorse it.

Bush, though, endorsed term limits for members of Congress, and Clinton said he opposed them because, he argued, limiting terms would empower congressional staff members and would diminish the clout of smaller states in the Congress.