Voting panel satisfied with straight talk, fewer insults

ROUND 2: THEY STICK TO THE ISSUES

October 16, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

Round 2 of the presidential debates was a split decision, but the winner was again the slightly hoarse governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, according to a panel of eight Baltimore area voters who have viewed the first two presidential debates together at the invitation of the Baltimore Sun.

The panel had judged Mr. Clinton the shutout winner of the first debate -- 6-0, with two voting for a tie -- mostly on the basis of strength on the issues. Last night five members voted him the winner again -- including all three undecided voters on the panel -- while two said President Bush won it and one declared independent candidate Ross Perot the winner.

Both votes for Mr. Bush came from the two panelists who said earlier they'll probably vote for him. Similarly, the lone panelists supporting Mr. Perot chose Mr. Perot the winner, and both backers of Mr. Clinton chose him.

The most telling results from the panel so far may be that all three undecided voters chose Mr. Clinton -- for the second time in a row -- and all say they're now leaning toward voting for him, though all three say they may yet change their minds.

Mr. Clinton again got his highest marks for specific answers and detailed plans, even from the three panelists who didn't judge him the winner. Despite the details, they disagree with his solutions, those three said.

"The thing I don't like about Clinton is the amount of programs, programs and programs . . . without any indication of where the money is going to come from," said Russ Bonchu Jr., 46, a Bush supporter from Harford County. Mr. Bonchu, who said he was wavering in his support for Mr. Bush after the first debate, said last night he's firmly back in the president's camp, partly because "this was a much cleaner debate," he said.

But for the Clinton supporters and undecided voters on the panel, Mr. Clinton's proposals struck some chords.

Candy Martin, 36, an undecided voter from Baltimore County who was leaning toward Mr. Clinton after the first debate, said that while washing the dishes this evening she had been pondering how her family would finance college educations for their children.

She then heard Mr. Clinton describe his plan for free tuition in exchange for national service, and it clicked with her. She also liked his ideas on health care reform.

Ed LaRue, 71, a Clinton supporter from Baltimore, said "Bush is pushing, as he has been from day one, for the same warmed-over hash we've had for 12 years, whereas Clinton comes out with programs, with new ideas. Willing to gamble a little bit. He's a man for the 90s, not a man for the 50s and 60s as Bush is."

Mr. Clinton also made strides among the panelists toward shedding the "Slick Willie" image of phoniness that has haunted him during some of the campaign, the panelists indicated, citing his ease of manner on the stage and his eye contact with the questioners in the Richmond audience.

And, in a warning signal for Mr. Perot: all those homilies and cracker-barrel wisecracks that played so well to the national audience in the first debate are wearing thin after the second dose.

Ken Winkler, 25, a Perot supporter from Anne Arundel County, agreed that some of the lines are getting old. But he judged Mr. Perot the winner and still backs him. "Rather than vote for a

collection of policies and programs, I'm voting for the person," Mr. Winkler said. "He's done an amazing amount of things so far in his life, and I feel it's worth giving him a shot."

And, you can also say this for old Ross, the panelists agreed: his jarring frankness in the first debate, with its informal, unrehearsed appeal, seems to have convinced Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush to be more straightforward.

"I think they're pretty forthright now," said Mr. LaRue, "They were a little evasive the first time, and they saw that didn't go over so good. . . . He [Perot] extended both of them."

The panelists were relieved that the debate never degenerated into a shouting match of interruptions and free-for-alls, despite the looser talk-show format.

Some attributed the night's orderliness to the member of the audience who asked early in the evening why the candidates were wasting so much time on personal attacks. "He set the tone for the whole evening," Mr. LaRue said.

The panel was selected for The Sun by House Market Research Inc. of Potomac. Four members are male. Four are female. They range in age from 19 to 71, and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds -- from medical assistant to sales clerk, from homemaker to retiree. Seven are white, one is black. They'll also watch the third debate together next Monday night.

Although members of the panel applauded the issues-oriented discussions of the first debate, they thought the format was too limiting, with its two-minute limit on answers and one-minute limit on rebuttals.

But last night's free-form style was even less to their taste, in the way it lent itself to repetitive questions from the audience, some of which were rated as downright dumb.

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