Manchester,N H. --- FOR DEMOCRATS seeking a presidential nominee, debates like the one here the other night are a kind of trap.
Although there were a few cheap shots and grandstand plays, the five candidates spent most of the two hours demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of complex domestic problems. It is fair to say that all five showed an ability to articulate their concerns and solutions that the notoriously inarticulate President Bush would be hard-pressed to match.
But the problem for the Democrats is that the issues on which they focused most intently -- the economy, trade, tax policy, education -- are unlikely to be the pivotal ones in the general election campaign next fall. This is the case not because the problems will have been solved but because Mr. Bush inevitably will attempt to make the campaign turn on sloganeering questions about "values" and "liberals" and "special interests." It happened in 1988 and there is no reason to expect anything different this time.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska conceded as much when he said the campaign to unseat Mr. Bush will not center on position papers and issues but on the Democratic nominee's ability to show "the capacity to lead and willingness to fight."
The debate a month before the Feb. 18 primary here produced no clear winner, although a case could be made for former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. He showed a more forceful ability to make his case with clarity and good humor than had been true earlier. And the other candidates repeatedly paid deference to "Paul" on the economy, in part perhaps because they have persuaded themselves his supporters here will peel off to someone else later in the campaign.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the clear leader in recent polls here, demonstrated his usual self-assured skill at keeping the discussion focused on the middle class. And Mr. Kerrey, whose stump performance has been improving lately, salted his rhetoric with specifics on New Hampshire, citing the problems of a
James River paper mill and his conversations about the crime problem with Manchester police.
The debate was remarkably free of acrimony, although Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, trailing in the polls, used his closing statement to attack Mr. Clinton's record in Arkansas after Mr. Clinton already had closed and had no opportunity for rebuttal. Harkin repeatedly reinforced his claim to be the "real Democrat" in the field and not, as he portrays Mr.Clinton, a closet Republican who "bought into Reaganomics" in Arkansas. Former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California abandoned his earlier preoccupation with the ills of the political financing system to throw out another idea with superficial appeal -- a 13 to 14 percent flat tax as a substitute for the present tax system.
Both the tone and content of the debate made it clear once again, if that were necessary, that the central difference between all these Democrats and President Bush is their willingness to rely on activist government as the mechanism for dealing with economic and social problems. Although none of the candidates had the time to spell out in detail his prescriptions for dealing with these issues, it would not be surprising if the Republicans were licking their chops at the prospect of another run against "big government" and "liberal spending plans."
There was nothing in the debate, however, to suggest any likely change in the shape of the Democratic campaign here. Harkin's repeated thrusts at Mr. Clinton reflected not only the Iowan's own weakness in polls right now but Mr. Clinton's stature as the acknowledged front runner. Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Tsongas, the two candidates running just behind Mr. Clinton at the moment, each performed well enough to give their partisans encouragement.
The televised debates have special importance this year because the preliminary campaign for the primaries has been so much shorter than usual that potential primary voters have remarkably fuzzy pictures of the candidates. A survey made for the Boston Globe last week found, for example, that four of every five potential voters are still open to persuasion.
What these viewers saw here was a group of Democrats with an understanding of the parlous state of the economy and, in most cases, ideas for dealing with the problem. But they probably didn't see a preview of the general election campaign.