Washington.--In St. Louis, whither he went in search of restored pre-eminence, the incumbent president sometimes seemed, amazingly, to be the third man, even a bystander on stage.
Whatever suspense surrounded the debate leaked from it early when Mr. Bush became defensive about his most recent attempt to put Governor Clinton on defensive. The president began, "I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy." Mr. Clinton played the Prescott Bush card (refraining from saying, "And you're no Prescott Bush") and Ross Perot made this sensible point: Spending several trillion dollars of our children's money is as much evidence about "character" as is participation in anti-war demonstrations abroad long ago.
President Bush's synthetic anger about Mr. Clinton's college days is punctured by the thought (it is Daniel Webster's) that anger is not an argument. Mr. Bush's argument for himself -- that he has experience -- is a weak reed to lean on during today's gale of discontent, when people consider Washington "experience" a synonym for staleness. And Mr. Perot, the Chihuahua of contemporary politics, wondered: Why boast that one has had the experience of presiding over the production of current conditions?
There was a soupcon of real political flair in Mr. Perot's response to the question about legalization of drugs. He used concrete imagery of the sort politicians use when not just banging the usual kettledrum of insincerity: "Any time you think you want to legalize drugs go to a neonatal unit, if you can get in." They are, he said, crowded with infants getting an average of 42 days of treatment costing $125,000.
The one thing Mr. Bush could do by himself with 70 million people watching is make an announcement. He did. And it, like everything he has done in this year that began with that pratfall of a trip to Japan, diminished him.
He said that in a second term he would put James Baker in charge of domestic policy. This underscored the public's impression that, for Mr. Bush, attending to the things closest to their lives is tedium. Some biological urge or spiritual need or both impels the president to say things that remind us that he began his rise under the patronage of Richard Nixon, who once said that this country can take care of itself domestically but needs a president for foreign policy.
Mr. Bush said he will say to Mr. Baker, "You do in domestic affairs what you've done in foreign affairs." Whoa. Who has done what? The president's attempt to tantalize America with the prospect of Mr. Baker rampant in domestic policy is discordant with Mr. Bush's boasting about all he did to make the world so peaceful. And many a viewer munching a pretzel must have mused, "Why not elect Baker and cut out the middle man?"
Mr. Bush's promise regarding Mr. Baker rebutted -- or did it? -- the president's own statement four days earlier that he "absolutely" wants Mr. Baker to return to the State Department after he is done applying his masterful touch to the tiller of Mr. Bush's campaign. But immediately after the debate Rich Bond, GOP chairman, told the master of ceremonies of the 1992 campaign, Larry King, that maybe Mr. Baker would make everything shipshape domestically during the transition to a second term and then go back to Foggy Bottom.
Foggy indeed. But it all seems a trifle hypothetical.
The debate may have added a few small drops to the buckets of information voters already had about the candidates. There is a blurry line between impressive fluency and tiresome prolixity and Governor Clinton lives along that line. Mr. Perot's promises to get memos written and motors humming from the git-go call to mind the telephone answering machine that plays a recording of a busy signal. And as for President Bush's contention that the economy is the envy of the world but we can't cut the armed forces by another 50,000 because these ex-soldiers would not be able find jobs -- well, can the phrase "too silly for words" be applied to words?
But, really, what could have happened on that stage, this late in the campaign, that would have been a reasonable basis for large numbers of voters to change their minds? Politicians who get this far in the political game are not apt to encounter a question or riposte that turns them into pillars of salt or causes them to fold like accordions.
By a circuitous route but with remarkable precision the campaign came to St. Louis just in time. The preceding week -- Oxford, Moscow and all that -- had been perhaps the most embarrassing week in the history of modern presidential campaigning. Now the congestion of debates may keep these (( guys off the streets for a few days. When they emerge from the debates, November -- suddenly the loveliest word in the language -- will be just around the corner.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.