Final face-off: This time they come out swinging Issues are pushed into background as spirited bout focuses on 'character'

October 20, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The gloves came off in the final presidential debate last night, with Bill Clinton getting "front-runner treatment" from rivals George Bush and Ross Perot.

Forsaking the issue-oriented restraint of the second debate, which featured questions from voters, the candidates bashed one another with abandon for 90 minutes on national television with Mr. Clinton feeling much of the heat.

Each man had his moments, but the realities of an increasingly one-sided contest could be seen in the strategies of Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot, both far back in the polls.

Mr. Bush insisted he would win because had the best plan to get the nation's stalled economy moving.

But the president, who lags farther behind his main challenger at this point in the campaign than any incumbent in more than a half-century, devoted most of his time to attacking the front-runner.

He made repeated assaults on what he called a "dangerous" Clinton pattern of avoiding hard choices, in what was by far the most focused performance by Mr. Bush in the three televised encounters.

But if a snap poll by ABC immediately after the debate was any indication, voters may already have tuned out Mr. Bush. The president finished last when debate-watchers were asked who had won, with Mr. Clinton rated best and Mr. Perot second.

"They've decided to shoot the messenger," said a dejected Republican official who had been dispatched to the debate site by the Bush campaign to try to convince reporters that Mr. Bush had won.

In his closing statement, Mr. Perot tried to convince people they would not be wasting their votes by supporting him.

"Can we win? Absolutely, we can win, because it's your country," he said. "The question really is who do you want in the White House? It's that simple."

Mr. Clinton, for his part, gave as good as he got, turning back the Bush attacks by criticizing the president's integrity.

The Arkansas governor kept coming back to Mr. Bush's broken 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes, which he said candidate Bush had made simply to get elected and knowing it could not be kept.

"I really can't believe Mr. Bush is still trying to make trust an issue after 'Read my lips,' " he said.

Mr. Clinton also ridiculed Mr. Bush's announcement in the first debate that former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, his campaign manager, would be his domestic policy czar in a second Bush term.

"The person responsible for domestic economic policy in my administration will be Bill Clinton," the governor said.

"That's what worries me," Mr. Bush shot back in his best rejoinder of the evening, "He would do for the United States what he has done to Arkansas. We do not want to be the lowest of the low."

Down by nearly 20 points in the polls with 15 days until the election, Mr. Bush signaled his intention last night to open a new line of attack in the final days of the race: a concerted attempt to persuade voters that Mr. Clinton had been a disaster in his five terms as governor.

If Mr. Clinton had hoped to get some defense on that point from Mr. Perot, who noted that he grew up in Texarkana, Texas, "five blocks from Arkansas," he was wrong.

Mr. Perot called Mr. Clinton's boasts about his record as governor "irrelevant" to the larger problems facing the country.

"I could say, you know, that I ran a small grocery store on the corner. Therefore, I extrapolate that into the fact that I could run Wal-Mart. That's not true," Mr. Perot said, prompting laughter from the audience.

Mr. Clinton stuck closely to his campaign themes -- that the nation's economic woes should be laid at Mr. Bush's feet and that only he has the plan to get things moving. The Democrat boldly predicted a Bush defeat, something many in both parties are predicting with growing certainty these days.

"I don't believe he'll be re-elected, because trickle-down economics is a failure, and he's calling for more of it," Mr. Clinton said. "I'm going to change this country and make it better, with the help of the American people."

Mr. Perot brought the sharpest rejoinder of the evening from Mr. Bush when he accused the administration of having told Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that he could take northern Kuwait if he wanted it.

"That's absolutely absurd," Mr. Bush interjected. That brought a rebuke from moderator Jim Lehrer, who informed the audience that the president had broken debate ground rules, established by the Bush and Clinton camps, which forbade rebuttals. Mr. Bush apologized but said he felt compelled to speak to defend the nation's honor.

Mr. Clinton appealed in vain for a return to the substantive focus of Thursday's debate in Richmond, Va., but did not hesitate to hit Mr. Bush at every turn. He did shy away from attacking Mr. Perot, who did his best to set himself apart from the two veteran politicians standing beside him.

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