ST. LOUIS — ST. LOUIS -- If President Bush needed a superb performance by himself or a major gaffe by Gov. Bill Clinton to resurrect his flagging reelection campaign, he didn't get either in last night's first 1992 presidential debate.
Over the 95-minute exchange among the two major-party nominees and independent candidate Ross Perot, nothing happened that is likely to change the outlook that existed going into the debate. As a result, the challenge for the president heading for the second three-way debate in Richmond Thursday night remains the same. He still needs to create some kind of dynamic that will give voters a sense that he is achieving a breakthrough, either by selling himself better or seeing Clinton stumble.
The president's decision in advance of last night's debate to make an issue of Clinton's participation in Vietnam War protests in England 23 years ago was costly to him in that it forced him on the defensive when the Arkansas governor sternly accused him of questioning his patriotism.
Clinton, obviously well primed to make the most of the situation, winged the president by comparing him by implication to Joe McCarthy, the Republican Party's notorious character assassin of the 1950s, and noting that "a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush" -- the president's father. The line qualified as the likely favorite sound bite to be aired in post-debate television and newspaper accounts.
The introduction of the issue of Clinton's overseas protests against his own country's Vietnam policy also gave Perot an opportunity to do what he did throughout the debate-- dig at Bush for his performance over the last three-plus years. Perot wrote off Clinton's behavior in 1969 as youthful indiscretion while suggesting that what counts is behavior "when you're a senior official in the federal government spending billions of dollars of taxpayers' money."
There was much speculation before the debate about what impact Perot's presence would have. Predictably, Bush and Clinton treated him with kid gloves, only mildly differing with him on occasion and often agreeing with him. But that did not stop Perot from taking Bush to task for ignoring what at one point he called "a ticking time bomb" in the mushrooming federal deficit.
If Perot's presence on the stage reduced Clinton's chance to gain stature by squaring off alone with a White House incumbent, it also made Bush more of a target, compounding his problem of seeming to be on the defensive through most of the debate.