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Freewheeling format sparks no fireworks

President Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fielded questions from uncommitted voters Thursday in a free-flowing debate that ranged from taxes to crime and character. Clinton said he wanted the wealthy to pay their "fair share" in higher taxes, while the president said he was opposed to any tax increases.

There were few surprises, few fireworks and no knockout punches.

After a brief clash in which Bush renewed his attack on Clinton's anti-war activities in the Vietnam era, the three men were brought up short by a questioner's demand that they "focus on the issues and the programs."

They swiftly took his advice, and proceeded to dissect their disagreements over education, health care, the deficit, trade policy and urban woes.

The 90-minute debate at the University of Richmond was held under unprecedented ground rules in which independent voters asked questions from the audience.

Bush used his closing statement to make a swipe at Clinton's proposed tax increase and to ask the voters to decide who has the "perseverance, the character, the integrity, the maturity" to handle a crisis in the Oval Office.

Perot stuck to his outsider's appeal, saying that if the American people want to solve their problems "and not talk about it, I'm the one person they ought to consider."

Clinton closed by speaking to the voters in the audience rather than looking into the camera. He criticized the Republicans' "trickle-down economics" one final time, then said, "We've got to grow the economy by putting people first, real people like you."

The three men then shook hands and moved into the audience to greet those who had been their questioners.

Early on, the candidates were asked to give their remedies for the huge federal deficit, and Perot said that neither Republicans nor Democrats was willing to take blame for the nation's huge debt. "Somewhere out there is an extraterrestrial who's doing this to us," he said.

On crime, Clinton said he supported the so-called Brady bill that called for a waiting period for handgun purchasers, and also backed an anti-crime bill that was killed earlier this month in Congress by a Republican-led filibuster.

Bush countered that the crime bill backed by Clinton wasn't tough enough. He said he wanted tougher provisions to cut down on court appeals and to strengthen the hand of police officers. He also stressed his support for the death penalty.

It was a presidential debate unlike any other. Rather than standing behind the customary wooden lecterns, Bush, Clinton and Perot alternately sat on blue-upholstered, long-legged chairs and paced in front of them. They fielded questions from an audience of 209 independent voters, rather than from journalists. Carole Simpson of ABC News served as moderator for the 90-minute session.

Clinton was the leader in all the polls as he, Bush and Perot took up their positions, and Republicans conceded time was growing short for the president to shake up the race for the White House.

The Arkansas governor was quick to take advantage of the format, moving closer to the audience in responding to the first question.

Perot came out as feisty as ever, punctuating his points with hand gestures, every bit the successful salesman he once was.

Bush, too, showed flashes of humor. When Perot pledged to serve without pay, the president jokingly balked, noting that his wife, Barbara, was in the audience. He said he'd settle for a 10 percent pay cut.

Nearly an hour into the debate, one woman asked how the national debt had affected the candidates personally. Bush began an answer, but she interrupted to bring him back to its effect on his personal life. Bush then assumed she was asking about the recession, and said "everybody cares if we're not doing well. . . . That's why I'm trying to do something about it."

Clinton seized the moment to wade into the audience and stand within a few feet of the questioner. He said that as governor of Arkansas "in my state when people lose their jobs there's a good chance I'll know them by their names."

"I've been out here for 13 months . . . with people like you all over America, people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their livelihood," Clinton said. He said the nation was "in the grip of a failed economic theory," and the election was a referendum on whether to junk it and install a new one.

A tax and deficit discussion came early, when one questioner asked whether the three men would agree to not seek re-election if they could not wipe out the deficit in four years.

Clinton replied, "no, and I'll tell you why," explaining that eliminating the deficit would require tax increases and cuts in benefit programs so large that it could "make the economy worse." Instead, he said he would "bring it down by 50 percent and grow the economy." He said he would ask the "wealthy and foreign corporations to pay their fair share."

Bush _ only eligible for four more years in office _ did not address the question of not seeking re-election. But he questioned Clinton's proposals. "I don't see how you can grow the deficit down by raising taxes," he said. He said Clinton wants a $150-billion tax hike and $220-billion in more federal spending, but Clinton disputed the tax figure and said television news researchers had backed him up. He said his plan included $100-million in tax cuts and incentives.

In contrast, Bush called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a line item veto to permit him to bar individual projects, and a plan to allow taxpayers to earmark part of their taxes to reduce the deficit.

Perot stepped in with an attack on both political parties. "If they would talk to one another instead of throwing rocks, I think they'd get a lot done," he said of the two parties.