WASHINGTON -- Tomorrow night's presidential debate, the first of the three to be held in the space of eight days, has taken on immense political importance for President Bush. He needs something to happen during the scheduled 90 minutes to detour the widespread impression settling in that his candidacy is dead in the water.
As the incumbent, he normally would be taking a considerable risk merely by giving equal billing to his challengers, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot. But the president's strategists recognized in agreeing to three debates that they had to roll the dice in the hope that the dynamic of the campaign could thus be jolted off its current dismal course for him.
These strategists obviously hope that Clinton will say something that will undermine his own credibility with the millions of viewers tuned in. Although he as well as Bush and Perot will have been briefed to the teeth for the debate and on guard against any gaffe, such things have happened in past presidential face-offs.
The most memorable, and most damaging, was committed in 1976 by President Gerald R. Ford when, in response to a question in his second debate with Jimmy Carter, he insisted, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Asked a second time, he stuck to his guns, as his strategists held their heads. At a time when their candidate was surging back from a large deficit in the polls, they spent most of the next week in damage control and saw Ford's momentum stalled in its tracks. The narrowness of his loss made the gaffe seem all the more telling.
Short of such a glaring misstatement by Clinton, the Bush strategists hope for a display of temper under hard questioning that might shake voters' confidence in having the Arkansas governor in the Oval Office. Clinton has shown flashes of testiness this year, but considering the heat that he has endured under repeated questions about his personal life and draft record, he has also demonstrated a talent for self-control under fire.
If Clinton doesn't commit a verbal gaffe or blow his top, it will be up to Bush himself to convince voters of one of two things -- that Clinton is not qualified to be president, or that he as the incumbent offers promise of better conditions for Americans in the four years ahead.
In the weeks since the Republican convention in August, Bush has done his best to be persuasive on both counts, and if the polls are to be believed, he has fallen far short on both. As he has become increasingly critical and negative toward Clinton, he has risked being seen as a candidate trying to sidestep serious discussion on the one issue that is overwhelmingly on voters' minds -- the state of the economy.
If the president in tomorrow night's debate continues to go on the attack against Clinton on such matters as his draft record and participation in protests against the Vietnam War while he was a student in England, it could come off to many voters as more of the same presidential ducking. Yet Bush may feel obliged to do so. His attacks on the patriotism of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, after all, did hit pay dirt.
The most helpful development for the president, and for the voters, would be for him to simply outscore Clinton and Perot in serious debate. But so far in this campaign his preferred techniques have been diversion and fear, and his agenda for economic recovery is vulnerable to the question of why, after four years in office, he hasn't applied it. And the country seems tired of his dogged blaming of Congress.
For Clinton, his challenge is simpler -- sticking to the script that is winning for him, keeping his cool and conveying a sense that he is "presidential." As for Perot, the debate is an opportunity for him to insert into the debate his prescription for cutting the deficit, but if he balks at questions not to his liking, as he has done on the talk-show circuit, he will undermine that opportunity.
Although both Bush and Clinton said they would be happy to have Perot in the debates, it's clear they would rather he were anywhere else tomorrow night. Their best strategy for dealing with him will be to be courteous but pay as little attention to him as possible. It may not be easy, but for Bush especially, he has to focus on Clinton and best him one way or another -- on the high road or the low -- to resuscitate his campaign.