ST. LOUIS -- If the first presidential campaign debate of 1992 is to be judged in terms of the political equities, Bill Clinton walked away as a clear winner. Nothing much happened.
President Bush went into the debate obviously needing something -- anything -- to change the dynamics of the campaign. Several opinion polls show Mr. Bush trailing his Democratic rival by 12 to 16 percentage points. And those national findings are validated by the pattern of individual state polls that show, among other things, the president leading in only one of the 10 most populous states, his home state of Texas.
But the only thing new in Mr. Bush's arsenal apparently is his plan to use James A. Baker III, his campaign manager and erstwhile secretary of state, to serve as an economic czar if he wins a second term. It is not the kind of bombshell that can transform a campaign that has been going on for a year.
Lacking a silver-bullet solution, Mr. Bush had to rely on some gross failure by Mr. Clinton, perhaps some gaffe that would raise serious questions about his fitness for the Oval Office. But that didn't happen, either. On the contrary, the Arkansas governor, after displaying some initial nervousness, showed himself to be both relaxed and self-confident.
Mr. Clinton also probably won the contest for the sound bite most likely to be used most often by the television networks when he turned to Mr. Bush and chastised him for questioning his patriotism by citing the way the president's father, the late Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, had taken the lead in confronting McCarthyism a generation ago.
The real problem for Mr. Bush, however, was that he had no new cards to play. He has been groping all through the campaign for a line of attack on Mr. Clinton without finding one that works. And last night he reprised all of them without drawing blood. The attempt to characterize Mr. Clinton as just another "tax and spend liberal" in the manner of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis already has fallen flat, as polls in southern states show most clearly.
Mr. Bush also found himself trying to use assets that are essentially valueless and often irrelevant to an electorate preoccupied with the condition of their economy. The president said on several occasions, for example, that the grim pictures of the condition of the economy are exaggerated, but the evidence is abundant that the voters don't believe that.
He also made repeated references to the end of the Cold War. But, again, there is strong evidence that the voters already have given him all the credit they will ever give him for that success and are ready to move on to what he has done for them lately.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton doggedly stuck to his script; if he used the word "change" once, it may have been 50 times.
The first imperative for the challenger in this situation was to do whatever he could to make voters feel he belongs in the game at all. And Mr. Clinton accomplished that much simply by sailing through the 90 minutes without any serious stumble and with a display of the massive self-assurance that has characterized his political career.
If there was a second winner last night, it was probably Ross Perot, who was unorthodox enough to be a sharp contrast with the two professional politicians -- he didn't even use up his full allotment of time on some questions -- but professional enough in his analysis of the nation's economic problems to impress his listeners.
But Mr. Perot is still more of a distraction than a serious factor in the campaign; he is not going to be the next president so he is free to offer even the most unpalatable prescriptions. The question last night was whether 90 minutes of exposure to the largest audience of the entire year would change the shape of the contest between President Bush and Mr. Clinton.
And the answer is that nothing much happened.