ATLANTA -- The debate last night among the three vice-presidential nominees was supposed to be more of an entertainment than a critical exercise in helping the voters make up their minds on how they will vote on Nov. 3.
It was, after all, among three men whose identity will not be the critical factor in most voters' decision at the polls.
As in virtually all past presidential elections, it is the top of the ticket -- George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot this year -- that will matter to them, not Dan Quayle, Al Gore and James Stockdale.
In advance of last night's exchange, the big question seemed to be whether Quayle could improve his public image or would add to his reputation as a bumbler.
In that sense, the vice president probably did enhance his image with a forceful and aggressive posture, repeatedly going on the attack against Democratic nominee Clinton and Gore and avoiding any gaffe of the "You're no Jack Kennedy" mishap that befell him at the hands of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.
But the debate turned out to offer the voters more than the vindication of the beleaguered vice president.
For 90 minutes, the three vice-presidential nominees engaged in a serious and detailed debate of their tickets' major agendas and their own and their presidential nominees' records.
The tactics that the presidential nominees used in their debate in St. Louis Sunday night were adhered to by the vice-presidential nominees.
Gore hammered at the Bush economic record and repeatedly pressed Quayle to defend it.
Quayle sought to put the focus on Clinton's character, and Stockdale basically championed Perot as the man who could lead the country out of its economic quagmire.
As expected, Quayle and Gore dominated the debate, in both time and intensity, as they traded charges on their tickets' positions on everything from the economy, tax policy and environment to abortion, aid to the cities and education.
But Stockdale, in an unpolished imitation of his standard-bearer Perot, injected the same tone of common sense, good humor and contempt for politics-as-usual that made Perot a popular hit in the first presidential debate.
Typical was the former vice admiral's remark about leading a community of prisoners of war in North Vietnam. He said had succeeded because "the best thing I had going for me was I had no contact with Washington for all those years."
As a serious vice-presidential prospect, however, he was erratic and lost in substance what he gained in a certain courageousness and folksiness.
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Al Gore proved himself to be an extremely polished and effective surrogate for Clinton, repeatedly trying to box Quayle in on the Bush administration's economic record.
When Quayle boasted about his role in dealing with the attempted coup in the Philippines during Bush's summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Malta, Gore used the remark to forensic advantage.
"George Bush has concentrated on every other country in the world," he said. "When are you guys going to start worrying about our people here in the United States of America and get our country moving again?"
That question pretty well summed up the case Clinton has been making against Bush and his strong suit of foreign policy all fall.
Quayle similarly summed up the Republican case against Clinton with the charge that Gore several times in the debate was "pulling a Clinton" -- meaning changing his mind or misleading.
The vice president hammered at the theme of trust, charging that Clinton changed positions on a variety of issues so often that he could not be relied on in a crisis.
After Gore had accused Bush of using a "classic McCarthyite smear technique" in raising questions about Clinton's role in Vietnam war protests when he was a student in England, Quayle mustered up a somber voice as he asked:
"Is it a personal attack to point out that Bill Clinton didn't tell the truth? . . . the American people should demand that their president should tell the truth. Do you really believe Bill Clinton will tell the truth? Do you trust Bill Clinton to be your president?"
Vice presidents are supposed to be loyal team members and not embark on their own agendas.
In last night's debate, the present occupant of the vice-presidency and the two men aspiring to replace him all performed that function well.
The voters still will make their decisions based on the presidential candidates, not their running mates.
But the lively exchange among the second bananas should help attentive voters understand better the message being conveyed each ticket.
Now the ball goes back to Bush, Clinton and Perot to close the sale in the last two debates, and none will be burdened by having to explain away some gaffe committed by his running mate. And in that sense, at least, everybody won.