There are complaints aplenty about U.S. politics, but the first debate between this year’s presidential candidates was a reminder of what is right with the system. Rarely do voters anywhere have the opportunity to see their candidates square off and discuss issues in an intelligent and direct manner. Both men did their campaigns credit, and American voters are better off for it.

It is worth remembering that this debate almost did not happen. Texas Gov. George W. Bush wanted a different, more informal setting. Although Mr. Bush claimed Vice President Al Gore was reneging on his promise to debate “anytime, anywhere,” the Bush proposal was viewed as a transparent attempt to steer clear of the direct confrontation that took place Tuesday night in Boston. Fortunately, the Bush campaign retreated from its position and the debates went ahead in their original format.

Mr. Bush was supposed to prefer an informal setting because that plays to his strength — his ability to connect with ordinary people — and avoided his weakness, namely a less than sturdy command of details. And while Mr. Gore spewed facts and figures during the 90-minute debate, Mr. Bush held his own.

That is a significant part of the fight. The two men are battling expectations as much as each other. Mr. Bush is thought to be a personable man, but a lightweight nonetheless, lacking the gravitas needed to be president. Mr. Gore, in contrast, is thought to be too serious, too much a creature of the Washington political culture and too willing to do and say anything to get elected. Both men went some way toward moving beyond the stereotypes.

No knockout blows were delivered. None were expected, really. The only real damage would have been self-inflicted, and both candidates were well-prepared and ready for just about every issue. Some responses seemed a little too rehearsed, and certain themes were hammered a bit too hard, but neither man did himself a disservice. Most of the post-debate opinion polls gave Mr. Gore the win, but only by a slim margin. The fight for the elusive “undecided” voter continues and will intensify in the weeks ahead.

Most important, the debate made clear the differences between the two candidates’ philosophies. On issues ranging from education to prescription drugs, Mr. Gore favored a more active, interventionist federal government. Mr. Bush, by contrast, is a traditional Republican, preferring to see the states and individuals empowered and the national government more restrained. Mr. Gore would safeguard Social Security; Mr. Bush would allow individuals to plan for their own future.

The differences were crystal-clear on the issue of tax cuts: Mr. Bush wants an across-the-board tax cut. He was unapologetic that the richest Americans would get the most money back. Mr. Gore, on the other hand, was equally forthright in targeting the middle class with his tax plan.

The two men agreed on several issues. Senior citizens should have more public assistance. Education must be a priority, and national testing is essential. Although the two men differed on the circumstances under which the United States should intervene overseas, they concurred that the military needs more money.

Some will say that positions do not matter. Once in office, the president, whether Republican or Democrat, will be forced to decide in the same way. That is why third-party candidates are so important, and why — the critics claim — voters are being cheated by their exclusion from the debates.

The crowd around the center — the result of both electoral strategies and political necessity — has created the overwhelming number of undecided voters whom both candidates spend so much time courting. Clearly, however, the voting public prefers this situation: Why else would they continue to divide power between the president and Congress, forcing the compromises that promote centrism?

Moreover, the claim that there are no differences between the candidates or their parties is not true. The assertion that the president, whoever he may be, has no room for leaving his own mark when confronting a crisis is also false. The individual who occupies the White House makes a difference. As the campaign heads into the home stretch, the presidential race is getting tighter still. Fortunately, American voters have the opportunity to see the candidates up close and draw their own conclusions about who is best suited for the office. At a time of growing cynicism and disaffection among voters, it is reassuring to see that sometimes the system actually works.

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