No stumbles, no knockouts Sharpest face-off follows attack on Clinton patriotism CAMPAIGN '92 DEBATES: ROUND ONE

October 12, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief Staff writers Jules Witcover, Jack Germond and Roger Simon contributed to this article.

ST. LOUIS -- Gov. Bill Clinton forcefully defended himself last night on the "character issue" by proclaiming his love for America and accusing President Bush of using smear tactics against him.

There appeared to be no major blunders of the sort that would affect the outcome of the election, as Mr. Clinton and independent Ross Perot directed their critical remarks at the president while saying little about each other. Mr. Perot, making his debating debut, easily held his own against his more experienced rivals.

The sharpest confrontation of the 95-minute TV debate -- the first of the post-Cold War era -- revolved around Mr. Bush's renewed attack on Mr. Clinton's anti-war activities 23 years ago, when he was a graduate student in England.

Mr. Clinton responded by attempting to shame Mr. Bush with the example of the president's own father, who as a U.S. senator from Connecticut in the 1950s, denounced Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting politics.

"Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism," Mr. Clinton said. "I was opposed to the war, but I love my country."

Referring to news reports that several of the most conservative members of Congress had urged Mr. Bush to attack the Democrat's patriotism, Mr. Clinton said the president had "even brought some right-wing congressmen into the White House to plot how to attack me for going to Russia in 1969 and 1970, when over 50,000 other Americans did."

Mr. Bush, trailing in the polls with three weeks left in the campaign, again apologized in general for "mistakes" during his term as president.

"I hope I've earned your trust, because a lot of being president is trust and character," Mr. Bush said in his closing statement.

Mr. Perot, who came across as relaxed and knowledgeable, fired off several of the snappiest one-liners of the evening.

"If I get [to the White House], it will be a very unusual and historical event," he said to laughter, "because the people, not the special interests, put me there."

The computer tycoon vowed to put "all these [lobbyists] with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes . . . in the Smithsonian, because we're going to get rid of them, and the Congress will be listening to the people."

After the applause died down, Mr. Clinton interjected: "Ross, that's a great speech, but it's not quite that simple," prompting a round of clapping from his own supporters.

A quickie poll by ABC News showed that Mr. Perot had made the only significant gain in popularity among the three, jumping from 6 percent to 15 percent in a survey of 404 voters who watched the debate. The poll also showed Mr. Clinton widening his lead over Mr. Bush, from 46-35 in a pre-debate sampling to 46-31 afterward.

The poll, which had an error margin of 5 percent, showed that Mr. Clinton was regarded as the debate "winner," by 27 percent, followed by 22 percent who thought Mr. Perot won and 18 percent who picked Mr. Bush as the winner. Twenty-nine percent rated it a tie.

In the only bit of news from the debate, the president said that he would make Chief of Staff James A. Baker III the domestic policy czar of his second term.

Only last week, Mr. Bush had indicated that Mr. Baker would be returning to his post as secretary of state in January, if the president is re-elected.

Much of Mr. Bush's presentation last night appeared calculated to undermine the public's confidence in the front-runner Mr. Clinton, who remains little-known to many Americans. Only hours before the debate, the Bush campaign launched its harshest attack to date on Mr. Clinton's character by airing a 30-second negative TV ad on the draft issue.

The president again criticized Mr. Clinton for participating in London protests against U.S. policy in Vietnam during the late 1960s.

"I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country in a foreign land, organizing demonstrations against it, when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted," Mr. Bush said. "Some say, 'Well, you're old-fashioned.' Maybe I am, but I just don't think that's right."

Anticipating Mr. Clinton's response, the president said he was not questioning the Democrat's patriotism but his "character and judgment."

And he warned that, if elected, Mr. Clinton faced the possibility that U.S. soldiers would fail to obey an order to fight because "the commander-in-chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era."

Mr. Perot largely stayed out of the Clinton-Bush exchanges, although he appeared to side with the Democrat on the character question.

The independent candidate said it was "very important to measure when and where things occurred . . . when you're a mature individual [in the government] and you make a mistake, then that was on our ticket. If you make it as a young man, time passes."

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