Bush expected to focus on 'trust' in 2nd debate

October 15, 1992|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is expected tonight to follow the trail blazed by his running mate and directly challenge Bill Clinton on whether he can be trusted in the Oval Office.

Fighting to keep the election contest from shutting down around him, Mr. Bush will try in the second of three presidential debates to exploit the voters' doubts about Mr. Clinton's character and qualifications to be commander-in-chief, as well as their fears of higher taxes under a Democratic administration.

The president may even go so far as to repeat the charge made Tuesday by Vice President Dan Quayle in what one administration official called his "rip-your-face-off" exchange with Sen. Al Gore that the Arkansas governor has trouble telling the truth, Bush aides said.

"The issues will continue to be Clinton's character or lack thereof, and our approach vs. theirs on taxes and spending," said Bush campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "When you're 10 points down, you have to be real aggressive."

If he is to be elected, Mr. Clinton will have to surmount this last hurdle in voter acceptance that accounts for much of the lingering queasiness in a race he has been leading solidly since early summer.

"We think that Clinton's contradictions and flip-flops speak for themselves if voters are made aware of them," said James Cicconi, a senior Bush adviser.

But Mr. Bush has to somehow chop the Democratic nominee down to size so deftly that it looks like the wounds are self-inflicted.

"If the president becomes kind of frantic and manic, he runs the danger of becoming a caricature of himself," said one Republican analyst. "He becomes the 'Saturday Night Live' version of George Bush."

All Mr. Clinton has to do is dodge and weave well enough to keep the blows from landing.

"He's got such a big lead it almost doesn't matter," said William J. Bennett, a former education secretary and drug czar in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "I was very disappointed with both Clinton and Gore. They're a couple of stuffed shirts. . . . But there's a poll out saying we're tied in Indiana. There's no way the Republicans can lose Indiana," he said, and avoid a landslide defeat.

Complicating the president's challenge is the novel format of tonight's program in which the candidates, including independent Ross Perot, will be taking questions from an audience made up of about 300 undecided voters. The program will begin at 9 p.m. tonight, thanks to the timely end last night of the baseball playoffs.

"We don't know whether it's going to be 'Geraldo' or 'Oprah,' said a senior White House official. "Anything could happen."

The audience participation format may work best for Mr. Perot, who forced the presidential race into talk show television early this year by waging his campaign almost exclusively through the airwaves.

The Texas billionaire with the folksy style has to make voters forget whatever qualms they developed about his running mate, James Stockdale, during Mr. Stockdale's hesitant and unpolished performance Tuesday night.

"I think the debate [Tuesday] may have stemmed the potential for Perot maintaining a significant challenge to the other candidates, either Bush or Clinton," said Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster.

He had charted the beginnings of a boomlet for Mr. Perot after TTC the Texan's performance in the first presidential debate last Sunday night when his support "doubled from single digits to the mid-teens."

Even so, Mr. Breglio believes Mr. Perot will get a percentage of the vote "in the high teens," and "will take slightly more from Bill Clinton than George Bush."

The independent ticket and its success at getting voters to take another look at the presidential race have become important to the Republicans, who fear voters are so angry at Mr. Bush because of the sour economy that they are not paying

attention to what the candidates say.

In a new sign of chaos at the White House, Chief of Staff James A. Baker III postponed yesterday, perhaps indefinitely, a speech he was supposed to give this week to elaborate on Mr. Bush's economic agenda for his second term.

After a great deal of discussion, Mr. Baker's staff decided it would be awkward for him to be giving a major speech in the middle of the marathon debate week, which will end Monday with a final face-off between the three presidential candidates. In fact, talk of the Baker speech had already drawn attention away from the president and raised questions about why Mr. Bush needed his top aide to convince voters he is serious about taking action to jump start the economy.

"We're losing, but we're not stupid," said a Baker aide.

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