Debate provides little to spur Bush comeback



ST. LOUIS -- If President Bush needed a superb performanc by himself or a major gaffe by Gov. Bill Clinton to resurrect his flagging reelection campaign, he didn't get either in last night's first 1992 presidential debate.

Over the 95-minute exchange among the two major-party nominees and independent candidate Ross Perot, nothing happened that is likely to change the outlook that existed going into the debate. As a result, the challenge for the president heading for the second three-way debate in Richmond Thursday night remains the same. He still needs to create some kind of dynamic that will give voters a sense that he is achieving a breakthrough, either by selling himself better or seeing Clinton stumble.

The president's decision in advance of last night's debate to make an issue of Clinton's participation in Vietnam War protests in England 23 years ago was costly to him in that it forced him on the defensive when the Arkansas governor sternly accused him of questioning his patriotism.

Clinton, obviously well primed to make the most of the situation, winged the president by comparing him by implication to Joe McCarthy, the Republican Party's notorious character assassin of the 1950s, and noting that "a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush" -- the president's father. The line qualified as the likely favorite sound bite to be aired in post-debate television and newspaper accounts.

The introduction of the issue of Clinton's overseas protests against his own country's Vietnam policy also gave Perot an opportunity to do what he did throughout the debate-- dig at Bush for his performance over the last three-plus years. Perot wrote off Clinton's behavior in 1969 as youthful indiscretion while suggesting that what counts is behavior "when you're a senior official in the federal government spending billions of dollars of taxpayers' money."

There was much speculation before the debate about what impact Perot's presence would have. Predictably, Bush and Clinton treated him with kid gloves, only mildly differing with him on occasion and often agreeing with him. But that did not stop Perot from taking Bush to task for ignoring what at one point he called "a ticking time bomb" in the mushrooming federal deficit.

If Perot's presence on the stage reduced Clinton's chance to gain stature by squaring off alone with a White House incumbent, it also made Bush more of a target, compounding his problem of seeming to be on the defensive through most of the debate. The president sought to counter by engaging in boosterism, several times disagreeing that, as he charged Clinton with saying, "the country is coming apart at the seams." At several points and in his closing remarks, he strove to put his foreign-policy achievements, and particularly the reduction of the nuclear threat brought about by the end of the Cold War, in the forefront.

But the state of the economy is what remains at the forefront of voters' concerns, as all polls overwhelmingly demonstrate. And Bush's expressions of understanding people's concerns and his rehashed attacks on Clinton as just another tax-and-spend Democrat did not offer them anything new to encourage their support.

The very fact that one debate is now over and the president has failed get from it any new ammunition with which to try to reduce Clinton's commanding lead is in itself a loss for him, and a gain for Clinton. The history of these debates is that voters pay less attention after the first one -- unless there is a major gaffe, as in Gerald Ford's denial of Communist domination of Eastern Europe in his second debate against Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Clinton demonstrated a steadiness and confidence that raises the odds on the chances that he will blow his cool or otherwise hand Bush something in the second debate with which to breathe new life into his campaign. And with Perot sniping at the Bush record while saying nothing about Clinton, the president is going to find it just as difficult in Richmond to find the chemistry, let alone the persuasive case on the economy, to convince the voters that a second four years will bring improvement over his first four in the Oval Office.

In the meantime, there is the debate of vice-presidential candidates in Atlanta tomorrow night. In that one, the president will no doubt be keeping his fingers crossed. Little that Vice President Dan Quayle can say is likely to help Bush's dilemma, so the president will be hoping Quayle at least will say nothing that will make his comeback task any harder.

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