The presidential candidates have a chance tonight to get the election campaign back on the high road. It is an opportunity for voters who continue to be troubled in their choice for the presidency to observe the candidates close-up in this first televised debate. If the contenders talk in concrete terms about the issues, voters may conclude they have what it takes to be potential chief executives. If they keep up the mud-slinging and fancy side-stepping, voter cynicism will only deepen.
Although the format tonight is familiar -- a moderator and three questioners -- it will be the first debate with three participants. Ross Perot's belated re-entry into the race has injected a wild-card factor in the debate, if no longer in the electoral contest. He can accomplish what he says he wants: to force George Bush and Bill Clinton to face up to this country's staggering economic problems and to say what they will do. If he simply plays the role of spoiler tonight, he will prove once and for all he is nothing more than a destructive egotist. Mr. Perot postponed a paid telecast Friday night that was supposed to outline his solutions to the economic challenges and instead re-ran his previous description of the problems. That may mean he is saving his ammunition for tonight. We hope so.
As for President Bush and Governor Clinton, their roles are clear. Both of them have skillfully avoided telling the electorate in specific terms how they would revive the economy, balance the budget, reduce the deficit or finance the health-care plans they espouse. Now is the time to put up. Three weeks remain in the campaign. There are two more presidential debates scheduled in little more than a week. Tonight Mr. Bush has the debate format he held out for, and the burden is on him to use it constructively. He has given no indication where he would steer this country if re-elected. If he does that, Mr. Clinton is obliged to be frank for a change. He has proved disconcertingly adept at avoiding painful specifics.
Politicians and pundits will score these debates -- and the vice-presidential session Tuesday night -- and proclaim someone winner. But the preponderance of the evidence says no candidate really wins a debate, though it is possible to lose one. A serious blunder like Gerald Ford's premature dismantling of the Soviet bloc can cause serious damage. Yet in general, the debates simply reinforce a voter's preconceptions.
This year's debate series may be different in that there are more uncertain and uneasy voters than usual at this stage of a campaign. They need straight talk from Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton and intellectual honesty from Mr. Perot. We look forward to hearing it.