Discussion of issues cheers voters Character attacks called a negative CAMPAIGN '92 DEBATES: ROUNG ONE

October 12, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer Staff Writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

Their assessment was sweeping and sure: Bill Clinton won it. President Bush was a disappointment. Ross Perot was nothing but lightweight comic relief. And, wonder of wonders in this overheated season of charge and countercharge, the candidates actually talked about the issues, occasionally even in some detail.

That was the assessment last night from a panel of eight #F Baltimore-area voters who watched the first of three presidential debates together at the invitation of the Baltimore Sun, after being selected from random telephone calls by House Market Research Inc. of Potomac.

The panel will be watching all three presidential debates together to gauge how their opinions of the candidates change, if at all, during the eight-day span.

Four members of the panel are male. Four are female. Their ages vary from 19 to 71, and their occupations range from a retiree to medical assistant, from homemaker to salesman of corporate retirement plans. Seven are white, one is black. One was laid off from his job last year and spent eight months looking for another, and each has seen first-hand the rising uncertainty and fear of a slumping economy.

Going into the first debate, two members of the panel supported Mr. Bush, two supported Governor Clinton, one supported Mr. Perot and three said they were undecided. But by the time the debate ended last night, one Bush supporter was wavering and two of the undecideds were leaning toward Mr. Clinton. Both of Mr. Clinton's supporters were holding firm.

"Clinton was more emphatic on what he wanted done, while Bush seemed to be skirting the issue," said Gwen Laws, 64, a Clinton supporter from Baltimore.

But the most satisfying aspect of the evening, panel members said, was the triumph of substance over style. All eight had said in separate interviews before the debate that they wanted to hear the candidates focus more on their plans for nursing the economy, and less on mudslinging and personal attacks.

"I think they try so hard to make the other person look bad that the important issues get clouded and you're not sure what they mean," said Chris Hulett, 19, a Bush supporter from Baltimore County. "They're not getting down to the ground level to say, 'This is what I'm going to do to help the country.' "

For the most part, panel members said afterward, the debate gave them what they were looking for, and the few instances of personal sniping helped earn Mr. Bush his lowest marks of the night.

"He got into the character issue and the bashing much more than the other two," said a disappointed Russ Bonchu Jr., 46, a Bush supporter from Harford County. "My commitment to him weakened."

Otherwise, Mr. Bonchu said, "I think we're finally getting around to getting better information out from them."

When it came to Mr. Perot, assessments were dismissive and downright derisive.

"Is the little guy going to quit again?" Ed LaRue, 71, a Clinton supporter from Baltimore, wondered hopefully afterward.

Others called Mr. Perot "a joke," "comic relief," and "a spoiler, nothing but a spoiler."

It may have hurt the perception of Mr. Perot that five members of the panel had already dismissed him as a serious candidate before the debate began.

"Perot? I wouldn't vote for him if he was the only candidate," Mr. Bonchu had said. "Here's a man who either can't make up his mind or planned something that totally backfired."

The evening's biggest disappointment seemed to be that, despite all the talk about the issues, there's plenty more that these voters want to know about what the candidates propose to do.

Part of the problem was format.

"You can't possibly outline your whole economic platform in two minutes," two panelists said.

"That two-minute response time was ridiculous," Mr. LaRue said. "You've got world-shaking problems to deal with."

But another part of the problem, one said, was a recurring tendency to lapse into politically popular buzzwords.

Ken Winkler, a Perot supporter, said, "If I had a dime for every time George Bush said 'tax and spend,' it was almost like he was trying to subliminally insert it. And it was the same thing with Clinton saying 'change.' And it was more him saying don't vote for Bush, you need a change, and Bush saying, well don't vote for Clinton, he's tax and spend, and that's bad."

Mr. Winkler was also disturbed a bit by Mr. Clinton's performance.

"I think the thing that bothers me most, and it came through again here, is that everything he said, he seemed to be looking in the camera with a little, slight smile, kind of just to say, 'Trust me.' " he said. "And that always scares me . . . They all made me a little bit nervous."

Nonetheless, Mr. Clinton scored the most points with his answers, most panel members said, and for now two of the undecided voters are leaning in his direction.

"I can honestly say that I had my doubts about Clinton, period," said Candy Martin. "But I have to say that after watching the debate tonight, I believe him more so than anybody else."

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