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The First Debate Leaves Clinton in Front

3 minute read

THE TECHNIQUES HAVE BEEN INNOVATIVE, TO BE sure: the Clinton-Gore bus tours, the burgeoning role of TV talk shows and on Sunday the first three-candidate debate. The themes have been tested and refined so that for both Bill Clinton and George Bush they are repeatedly expressed in single words: change vs. trust. Yet the campaign’s opening phase, the seven weeks from the end of the conventions to the eve of the debates, was mostly motion, without progress. In seven polls released shortly before the debate, Clinton’s lead continued in double digits, averaging 12 points; President Bush’s support averaged only 35%. Ross Perot was at 10%, though his sharp and engaging debate performance may improve his standing. So far, his witty barbs may have damaged Bush’s candidacy more than they helped his own.

The lack of movement mainly mirrors the stubborn failure of the economy to show any forward motion. Voters have been too worried about their jobs and incomes to be distracted by any doubts about Clinton’s character. Said a Bush official: “We didn’t realize how much the whole campaign would be driven by the economy and how resistant the voters would be to our attempts to change the subject.” He added, “We’re going to keep attacking, but that’s mainly because we don’t know what else to do.”

The days before the debate saw some of the most vicious attacks yet, as Bush questioned Clinton’s patriotism while piously denying that he was doing so. The President wondered aloud why Clinton, who was then attending Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, went to Moscow in 1970 and whom he saw there. Clinton says he visited, for all of a week, “mostly as a tourist.” The assault quickly backfired, and Bush stopped mentioning Moscow. On Sunday night, though, he persisted in attacking Clinton for helping organize demonstrations by Americans in London against the Vietnam War. Clinton, who had earlier quoted Bush’s inaugural plea for Americans to put the divisions of Vietnam behind them, compared Bush’s criticism with the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy — whom Bush’s father, Clinton noted, had courageously opposed.

All in all, the first debate probably changed few minds; no candidate came up with anything startlingly new. But Clinton at least matched Bush in presidential stature, and for a challenger, that almost by definition constitutes victory. Bush is left with an extremely daunting task: no winner has ever come back from being this far behind this close to an election. (See cover stories beginning on page 26.)

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