The Last Debate

October 20, 1992

It was the last debate and the best debate last night as President Bush fought to save his bid for re-election against a front-running Bill Clinton. With Ross Perot offering counter-point with criticism of both major-party candidates, the unprecedented exchange of information that has enriched the 1992 campaign came to a rousing climax.

As expected, Mr. Bush came on aggressively by accusing his opponent of trying to have it both ways on issues and of planning to "sock it to the middle class" on taxes. Mr. Clinton hit back by calling the Reagan-Bush record a failure in "voodoo economics." He called Mr. Bush its "chief practitioner" and complained of "trickle-down" theories that had hurt the middle class.

Through Mr. Perot's caustic intervention, the third of the presidential debates focused as never before on the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. The independent Texas billionaire contended that the Bush administration built up Saddam Hussein and even promised him part of northern Kuwait -- an assertion the president rejected as an assault on the national honor. Mr. Clinton, needled by Mr. Bush for saying he would have voted for the use of force but sympathized with those who favored economic sanctions, said the president erred by tilting to Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war.

It is doubtful the debate will dramatically alter polling results indicating a double-digit lead by the Democratic contender for the presidency. But all three men in the debate probably energized and solidified their supporters as the nation heads into the last fortnight of the campaign.

If Mr. Bush made any mistake last night, it was in repeatedly saying he had made a "mistake" in approving the 1990 budget agreement to raise taxes in exchange for caps on spending. His point was that he was willing to admit error, something he said he had never heard from Mr. Clinton.

In many ways, Mr. Clinton acted the part of a candidate on the verge of victory. Asked about problems in the banking industry, a subject on which he could have cried crisis, he joined with the president with calming words about the situation. He said the government would have to act prudently and not overreact, especially by doing its part to end a credit crunch that many economists think has prolonged the recession.

The president, far less fumbling than in earlier debates, made what may be his final plea to the largest audience he will have before election day. He made it clear that if he is facing defeat, he will do so with dignity, quoting Horace Greeley that "the only thing that endures is character." It was a fitting end to one of the most extraordinary political exchanges in the nation's history.

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