ST. LOUIS -- Gov. Bill Clinton forcefully defended himself last night on the "character issue" by proclaiming his love for America and accusing President Bush of using smear tactics against him.
There appeared to be no major blunders of the sort that would affect the outcome of the election, as Mr. Clinton and independent Ross Perot directed their critical remarks at the president while saying little about each other. Mr. Perot, making his debating debut, easily held his own against his more experienced rivals.
The sharpest confrontation of the 95-minute TV debate -- the first of the post-Cold War era -- revolved around Mr. Bush's renewed attack on Mr. Clinton's anti-war activities 23 years ago, when he was a graduate student in England.
Mr. Clinton responded by attempting to shame Mr. Bush with the example of the president's own father, who as a U.S. senator from Connecticut in the 1950s, denounced Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting politics.
"Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism," Mr. Clinton said. "I was opposed to the war, but I love my country."
Referring to news reports that several of the most conservative members of Congress had urged Mr. Bush to attack the Democrat's patriotism, Mr. Clinton said the president had "even brought some right-wing congressmen into the White House to plot how to attack me for going to Russia in 1969 and 1970, when over 50,000 other Americans did."
Mr. Bush, trailing in the polls with three weeks left in the campaign, again apologized in general for "mistakes" during his term as president.
"I hope I've earned your trust, because a lot of being president is trust and character," Mr. Bush said in his closing statement.
Mr. Perot, who came across as relaxed and knowledgeable, fired off several of the snappiest one-liners of the evening.
"If I get [to the White House], it will be a very unusual and historical event," he said to laughter, "because the people, not the special interests, put me there."
The computer tycoon vowed to put "all these [lobbyists] with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes . . . in the Smithsonian, because we're going to get rid of them, and the Congress will be listening to the people."
After the applause died down, Mr. Clinton interjected: "Ross, that's a great speech, but it's not quite that simple," prompting a round of clapping from his own supporters.
A quickie poll by ABC News showed that Mr. Perot had made the only significant gain in popularity among the three, jumping from 6 percent to 15 percent in a survey of 404 voters who watched the debate. The poll also showed Mr. Clinton widening his lead over Mr. Bush, from 46-35 in a pre-debate sampling to 46-31 afterward.
The poll, which had an error margin of 5 percent, showed that Mr. Clinton was regarded as the debate "winner," by 27 percent, followed by 22 percent who thought Mr. Perot won and 18 percent who picked Mr. Bush as the winner. Twenty-nine percent rated it a tie.
In the only bit of news from the debate, the president said that he would make Chief of Staff James A. Baker III the domestic policy czar of his second term.
Only last week, Mr. Bush had indicated that Mr. Baker would be returning to his post as secretary of state in January, if the president is re-elected.
Much of Mr. Bush's presentation last night appeared calculated to undermine the public's confidence in the front-runner Mr. Clinton, who remains little-known to many Americans. Only hours before the debate, the Bush campaign launched its harshest attack to date on Mr. Clinton's character by airing a 30-second negative TV ad on the draft issue.
The president again criticized Mr. Clinton for participating in London protests against U.S. policy in Vietnam during the late 1960s.
"I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country in a foreign land, organizing demonstrations against it, when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted," Mr. Bush said. "Some say, 'Well, you're old-fashioned.' Maybe I am, but I just don't think that's right."
Anticipating Mr. Clinton's response, the president said he was not questioning the Democrat's patriotism but his "character and judgment."
And he warned that, if elected, Mr. Clinton faced the possibility that U.S. soldiers would fail to obey an order to fight because "the commander-in-chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era."
Mr. Perot largely stayed out of the Clinton-Bush exchanges, although he appeared to side with the Democrat on the character question.
The independent candidate said it was "very important to measure when and where things occurred . . . when you're a mature individual [in the government] and you make a mistake, then that was on our ticket. If you make it as a young man, time passes."
Mr. Perot generally avoided attacks on Mr. Clinton and delivered softer criticism of the president than he has in his frequent appearances on TV talk shows.
The Texas businessman also provided one of the few moments of humor when, in defending his proposal to increase gas taxes by 50 cents a gallon, he said he was "all ears" if somebody had a better solution to reducing the deficit -- a reference to the most prominent part of his physiognomy.
In response to the initial question from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, Mr. Perot said what set his candidacy apart from the others was the fact that it "came from the people" who signed petitions to put him on the ballot in 50 states.
Mr. Clinton, meantime, took the opportunity to state his case for unseating Mr. Bush.
"Tonight I say to the president: Mr. Bush, for 12 years you've had it your way. You've had your chance and it didn't work. It's time to change," the Arkansas governor said.
Mr. Bush came back by emphasizing his long experience in government, adding: "Change for change's sake isn't enough."
Replied Mr. Clinton: "Experience counts but it's not everything. . . . The same old experience isn't relevant. We're living in a new world after the Cold War."
The candidates covered a wide range of issues already discussed in the campaign, from AIDS and taxes to drugs, health care and reducing the size of the military.
Foreign policy played a minor role, with Mr. Clinton deploring the president's refusal to respond to the human-rights abuses in China after the democracy movement was repressed there.
The Democrat accused Mr. Bush of having dispatched national security aide Brent Scowcroft to toast the Communist Chinese leaders in secret. That brought an angry response from the president, who branded it an "insult" and denied that the White House aide had gone to Beijing to "coddle" the Chinese government.
Last night's debate was held at the Field House of Washington University, which was turned into an elegant TV studio for the event. Although the Bush and Clinton campaigns set the ground rules, the Commission on Presidential Debates, established by the two major political parties, served as sponsor.
The candidates stood on a red-carpeted stage behind light-oak lecterns specially designed to make them look the same height on television, even though Mr. Perot, at 5 feet 6, stands at least eight inches shorter than his rivals.
Facing the candidates, with their backs to the invitation-only audience, were the questioners, chosen by the debate commission in consultation with the candidates: Ann Compton of ABC News, John Mashek of the Boston Globe and free-lance journalist Sander Vanocur.
On hand for the event were the wives and other relatives of the candidates, and elected officials, including House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Republican Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri.
The next debate, tomorrow at 7 p.m., will feature the three vice presidential candidates and will take place on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta.
With three weeks left in the campaign, Mr. Clinton holds a lead of roughly 15 percentage points over Mr. Bush in most national polls. Perhaps more important, the Democrat also leads in more than enough states to gain a majority of the electoral votes.
Mr. Perot trails far behind, with about 10 percent of the likely vote.
DEBATES TO COME
* Oct. 15, Richmond, Va., 9 p.m., single moderator with questions from the audience. Moderator is ABC's Carole Simpson.
* Oct. 19, East Lansing, Mich., 7 p.m., single moderator for the first half, panel for the second. Moderator is ABC's Carole Simpson.
* Oct. 13, Atlanta, 7 p.m., moderated by Hal Bruno of ABC.