President unable to gain Domestic stress favors Clinton

October 16, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Knight-Ridder News ServiceStaff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- The voters took over last night in the second presidential debate, and they didn't just ask the questions. They told President Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot that they wanted them to quit slinging mud at each other and get down to discussing the issues that affect their lives.

Without entirely abandoning personal comments, the candidates obediently knuckled down to talking about a range of subjects in greater depth than in the first presidential debate in St. Louis or in the vice presidential debate in Atlanta.

What came out was no marked change in any of the major positions expressed by the three candidates, but they conveyed them in a detailed and well-mannered fashion, each trying to close the deal as the Nov. 3 deadline approaches. And, once again, nothing said was likely to make a serious dent in Mr. Clinton's lead in the polls.

A heavy emphasis on domestic issues, particularly what to do about the flagging economy and the nation's inadequate health-care system, played into the hands of Mr. Clinton, who has built that lead by hammering at what he called at one point a country "in the grip of a failed economic theory."

More than an hour went by before there was a question on international affairs and Mr. Bush had an opportunity to talk pridefully about the changed world since he became president. As he did in the first debate, he emphasized the importance of the end of the nuclear arms race but even in doing so acknowledged that "you hear about all the bad stuff that happened on my watch."

When it was Mr. Clinton's turn to talk about foreign policy, he brought the discussion back to the economy, reiterating as he has throughout the campaign that a strong economy at home is the first requirement for a strong foreign policy.

Once again, Mr. Perot provided the most colorful quips, as when, in talking about U.S. jobs being lost to Mexico, he observed that "there will be a job-sucking sound going south." And he again presented himself as the mechanic with his head under the hood getting things done -- without providing specifics, which he promised to provide in a paid television presentation tonight.

"Do you want to fix the problem or a sound bite?" he asked at one point, providing yet another sound bite.

The only news of the night, if it could be so characterized, came when the candidates were asked how they stood on term limits for members of Congress. Mr. Perot observed that if elected, he would serve only one term -- and without taking a paycheck to boot.

Going into last night's debate, the president was in the awkward position of having his debate performance measured against the aggressive showing of his own running mate, Vice President Dan Quayle, in Atlanta Tuesday night. It was a little like Batman being asked to outshine Robin. At the same time, however, it was important that Mr. Bush maintain a presidential coolness to preserve whatever advantage accrued to the incumbent.

In any event, he did not match in intensity or sharpness the attacks Mr. Quayle made on Mr. Clinton, mentioning only once his difference with the Arkansas governor over the Democrat's protesting the Vietnam War while a student in England.

At the end, Mr. Bush sought in his closing statement to tie together his foreign policy experience and questions about Mr. Clinton's character. He conjured up a sudden major international crisis, or one in this country, and asked the audience which of the candidates they believed had "the perseverance, the character, the integrity and maturity" to meet the crisis.

Mr. Clinton, who claimed credit for the format used, adeptly took advantage of it, and the admonition not to get into personalities, to keep the focus on his economic and other domestic proposals and on the Bush domestic record, which has remained the president's Achilles heel all year.

With the personal slashing kept to a minimum, Mr. Perot's performance, which stood out as a breath of fresh air in the first debate, was not nearly as arresting as the two major-party nominees dominated the high road on which the debate progressed over most of its 90 minutes.

Perhaps the best result of last night's debate for Mr. Clinton, and the worst for Mr. Bush, was that two of the debates are over without any startling development likely to affect the election's outcome. With only one debate to go, Monday night in East Lansing, Mich., and less than three weeks left until Election Day, the opportunities are waning for the president to light a fire under his campaign and turn the polls around.

It seems clear on the basis of last night's debate that Mr. Bush has nothing dramatically new or different to offer in terms of his plans for economic recovery in a second term. Consequently, he must continue to raise questions about Mr. Clinton's trustworthiness -- and hope for an 11th-hour gaffe or new revelation of misconduct by the Arkansas governor -- to close the gap.

DEBATE HIGHLIGHTS

BEST SOUND BITE

George Bush to Bill Clinton: "You can't turn the White House into the Waffle House."

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E.T. PHONE HOME

Ross Perot on Republicans and Democrats who refuse blame for the deficit: "Somewhere out there is an extraterrestrial who's doing this."

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TOUGHEST ON CRIME

Mr. Bush: "I happen to think that we need stronger death penalties."

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MOST WISHY-WASHY

(To questioner who asked, "We're not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs?")

Mr. Bush: "I think it depends how you define it."

9+

THE FREE-TRADE DEAL THAT ATE U.S. JOBS

Mr. Perot: "There will be a giant sucking sound going south."

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TOUGHEST QUESTION

"Would you define in specific dollar goals how much you would reduce the deficit in each of the four years of a Clinton administration and then enter into a legally binding contract with the American people that if you did not achieve those goals that you would not seek a second term?"

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