George Bush seemed reluctant to look the camera in the eye even though 70 million Americans were waiting to be convinced that he should be president for another four years. Whatever was said in St. Louis Sunday night in the first, and probably most pivotal, presidential debate, it was the body language that had a story to tell: Bush, often staring down at his lectern, smiling his oddly apologetic smile, had not convinced himself, and therefore could not convince the country.
NEWSWEEK'S special postdebate poll confirmed what all but the most committed Republican voters saw. Asked which of the three contestants had done best, 43 percent chose Ross Perot. With his salty talk and epigrammatic humor, he evidently was able to remind voters of why they once were in awe of him. Bill Clinton was deemed the best performer by 31 percent-evidence that he had succeeded in staging the kind of unruffled, workmanlike performance he needed. Only 19 percent of those polled by NEWSWEEK thought that Bush had carried the evening.
The 90-minute event may have altered some opinions-though probably not the shape of the race. The voters' view of Clinton didn't change, good news for a candidate who seems headed for a clear victory in the Electoral College. The NEWSWEEK Poll showed that 70 percent of the voters took Perot more seriously as a result of the debate. The president was not able either to undercut Clinton's claim to be a responsible agent of change or to make a vivid case for himself. "He was just lame, period," said Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne, a leading expert on presidential-debate history. "He didn't accomplish what he had to do in the event."
Clinton did not light up the screen, but he had been carefully programmed to sell himself as a 46-year-old man with the maturity and mastery of the issues needed to move into the Oval Office. When Bush tried to rattle him at the start with a reference to his participation in antiwar protests, Clinton was ready with a devastating sound bite. When "Joe McCarthy went around the country attacking people's patriotism," said Clinton, "a senator from Connecticut" denounced him: Bush's own father, Prescott Bush. From then on Clinton, while less than convincing on some foreign-policy issues, hammered home his promises of planned, disciplined renovation of the American economy, its health-care system and education establishment.
In the unprecedented three-way televised debate-the first of three that will take place through next Monday-the only candidate to exceed expectations was Perot. He was a charming bad-news bear, implicitly skewering the others with his candor. "I'm not playing Lawrence Welk music tonight," said Perot, bravely defending his proposal to raise gasoline taxes by 50 cents over five years. He saved his best debating shots for the president. After Bush touted his Washington experience in office, in contrast to his opponents', Perot cracked: "I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt."
Unlike the campaign, the debate stayed mostly on the high road. But while gentle, it also was airily unspecific. Bush and Clinton escaped without being pinned down about the phony numbers in their economic plans. And even Perot, the gas-tax talk aside, avoided giving the prescription for the bitter medicine of spending cuts he details in his best-selling book. Overall, voters polled by NEWSWEEK said that Perot gave by far the best answers on the federal budget deficit, Bush the worst. More ominously for the president, he badly trailed both Clinton and Perot in the voters' estimation of their plans for stimulating the economy. Bush scored impressively on foreign policy, but the NEWSWEEK Poll also showed that fewer than one in five Americans thought the subject was crucial. Clinton's strongest suit in the debate, the poll showed, was health care.
In fact, Clinton was strongest on TV where he's been strongest on the campaign trail: a policy wonk who knew the numbers, but also a kind of national Oprah, dealing with what handlers call the "caring" issues. He spun out the verbal equivalents of home movies and his bus tours, citing his widowed mother on family values and his admiration for his brother's winning fight against drug addiction. In a move even Ronald Reagan would have appreciated, Clinton even paused to note that the debate was taking place on his 17th wedding anniversary.
Bush, even by his modest standards, was clearly off his game, distracted and eerily casual. He violated Rule Number One of Debate: don't bring up your own weaknesses. He, not Clinton, was the first to mention his broken tax pledge and the charge that he had been playing Joe McCarthy. He took a mild jab at basketball god Magic Johnson for quitting the AIDS commission. The president didn't accomplish his most basic tactical task: relentlessly raising doubts about whether the challenger could be trusted-Bush only rarely used the word "trust." The president had been given a host of attack lines, which he did not use. His aides were particularly irritated that he did not hit Clinton on his draft waffling and that he lazily invoked the names of past losers Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis rather than zeroing in on the mushy specifics of the Democrat's "tax and spend" economic program. "That will change by Thursday," vowed a senior campaign official.
If Sunday night was rather dull and lacking in fireworks-that was just what front runner Clinton had wanted. It was Perot who provided both straight talk and entertainment enough to keep viewers from clicking over to baseball. He soberly and convincingly reminded Americans that it was "time to pay the fiddler or we will be spending our children's money." At the same time, Perot seemed so intent on firing off one-liners that he risked self-caricature. When he imagined the remote possibility that he might actually win, the audience tittered.
The three candidates had come to St. Louis with different needs: Bush was searching for miraculous resurrection, Clinton for mere confirmation of what looked like a pending electoral triumph, Perot for respect. On the eve of the debate the race stood where it had been since August, with the Democrat winning less than a majority of the popular vote (44 percent in the new NEWSWEEK Poll), yet poised to win what could be an Electoral College landslide by virtue of Bush's weakness (35 percent) and Perot's lack of standing (12 percent) as a credible vehicle for change. Clinton's surveys showed him well ahead in most "frontline" battlegrounds: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and fully competitive in states that have been reliably Republican for years, including Florida, Texas, New Jersey and Colorado. Bush was faring so poorly in so many places that a GOP "targeted" ad strategy was all but useless. Late last week the Bush team pulled its local ads in Illinois and was putting most of its cash into "national" network buys. After the debate, the giddy Clintonites were talking "mandate" and preparing to stump for other Democratic candidates.
On the eve of the new St. Louis Exposition, the president's position was eerily reminiscent of another White House incumbent 12 years earlier, Jimmy Carter. While the economic "misery index" was far lower than in Carter's final days, Americans' fears about job security and their children's prospects were even bleaker. Before St. Louis, no GOP campaign theme had struck a chord with the voters: not the focus on "family values" in Houston, or the attack on Clinton's Arkansas record, or Bush's promises of an "American renewal," or his charge that Clinton was a tax-raiser with a fondness for European "social engineers." By process of elimination, the GOP was left with nothing else to assault but the Clinton of 23 years ago-the Rhodes scholar who avoided the draft and dabbled in anti-Vietnam War activism.
So the GOP opened a second front in their reprise-the '60s war.The groundwork had been laid weeks ago by Rush Limbaugh, the talk-show blunderbuss and Bush supporter. In ominous tones, he told listeners about a trip Clinton made in late 1969 and early 1970 to Moscow and other cities in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Conservative hatchetman Bob Dornan of California echoed the Red-baiting alarums in speeches on the House floor, broadcast live on C-Span. Clinton opened the door to more questions with his own shirty responses to Phil Donahue's questions' about the antiwar years. Then, in an Oval Office meeting last week, Dornan and other conservatives begged the president to use the theme. He didn't need much convincing: aides like Charlie Black had been urging Bush to focus on the Moscow trip.
Bush obliged, on "Larry King Live." "What do you make of the Clinton Moscow trip thing'?" King prompted. "I don't want to tell you what I really think," Bush replied, ominously. "I don't have the facts. But to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, not remember who you saw-I really think the answer is, level with the American people. . . I'm just saying level ... on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his own country from a foreign soil. I'll tell you what concerns me," Bush continued. "And I really feel viscerally about this: demonstrating against your own country in a foreign land."
Bush and his aides insisted they had not intended to question Clinton's patriotism, only his willingness to come clean. That's not how it played. Most of the political community agreed: not since the days of Spiro Agnew had the GOP launched such a vicious assault on the loyalty of a Democratic foe. A year after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the strategy struck most Americans, even many Republicans, as groundless, beside the point and out of bounds.
Clinton, in fact, had adopted his usual artichoke style of revelation on the topic of his antiwar years: one leaf gingerly removed at a time. But the GOP was fighting the credibility war on the wrong ground; revisiting the Vietnam era didn't strike most Americans as a fruitful exercise. NEWSWEEK'S poll showed that by a 3-1 margin, voters said his antiwar years aren't an important issue in the campaign. Still, the Bush campaign is not giving up on the "draft" issue. They prepared a harsh new ad, which began airing in Missouri hours before the debate, underscoring Clinton's dodgy explanations of the matter.
Before the debate, Clinton's aides had worried about his longwindedness and his raspy voice. He sipped tea and took steam treatments (inhaling, presumably). But both his voice and his game plan held up in St. Louis. From here on, it appears, he can almost coast. Having survived the tests of a challenger-he didn't blow his cool and he was in command of his facts, or at least his rhetoric-Clinton is now in the comfortable position of running out the clock.
Bush himself is in the uncomfortable position of running out of time. In what amounted to a desperation move, he promised on Sunday night to anoint James Baker as a domestic czar to save the economy in a second Bush term. The idea of Baker as co-president brought laughter in the Clinton trailer, and no movement in the poll numbers. Even Baker can't save George Bush now-and, after Sunday, it was no longer clear that Bush could save himself.