WILMINGTON, Del. -- Though pleased with his own performance in the first debate Sunday, Bill Clinton is nervously eyeing the comeback bid of Ross Perot, the scene-stealing Texas independent.
For the record, Mr. Clinton and his aides insisted yesterday that Mr. Perot was not a threat and said they saw no need to attack him at the next debate Thursday in Richmond, Va.
But in an interview with a radio talk-show host in Philadelphia, Mr. Clinton hinted at the campaign's concern, seeking to discount polls showing people felt Mr. Perot upstaged the two major party candidates Sunday.
By "getting out" of the race in the summer, Mr. Perot was able to avoid negative coverage from the news media, Mr. Clinton said. "The press just let him alone. So I think he has a benefit of no scrutiny and a free ride."
Mr. Clinton added that the debate format, which didn't permit follow-up questions, "was tailor-made for a guy like Perot who's funny and has great one-liners."
But Mr. Clinton, who concentrated his debate fire on President Bush, bent over backward not to criticize Mr. Perot. He even qualified his radio comments when reporters later asked about them, saying he had said Mr. Perot "had a good debate" and cautioning, "Don't make a big mountain out of a mole hill."
Clinton aides are concerned that the news media will play up Mr. Perot's unexpectedly popular performance Sunday, giving voters reason to support the billionaire and creating suspense entering the next two debates. Though they hope to distinguish Mr. Clinton's record and experience from Mr. Perot's, they're hesitant to attack him, not only because it might backfire but because Mr. Perot went out of his way to defend Mr. Clinton against Mr. Bush's assaults on his anti-war activities as a student.
Despite the uncertainty caused by Mr. Perot, the Clinton camp had ample reason to rejoice in post-debate polls showing voters thought the Democrat did better than Mr. Bush. The polls also indicated voters were not ready to move in large numbers to Mr. Perot's side.
Mr. Clinton and his aides also emphasized what they thought was a turning point early in the debate, when the Democrat accused the president of impugning his patriotism over the issue of his participation in anti-war protests abroad during the Vietnam War.
Overall, Mr. Clinton said he thought "it was a pretty good debate, given the format. You know I wished we had more time to discuss more issues in detail, but I felt very good about it."
The most serious threat to Mr. Clinton Thursday might turn out not to be his opponents, but his voice. Hoarse and raspy from a year of campaigning, he took along his voice coach yesterday as he gamely stuck to a daylong schedule of stops in Philadelphia, Delaware and North Carolina.
He was endorsed yesterday by the Philadelphia Daily News, which termed him a "visionary man," and by 22 retired, high-ranking military officers. They included men and women who served in the administrations of Mr. Bush and Ronald Reagan, among them Army Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, who was the second-highest ranking officer in Operation Desert Storm, and Gen. Mike Dugan, former Air Force chief of staff.
Retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had previously announced his support for the Democratic ticket, forcefully rebutted Mr. Bush's attacks on Mr. Clinton's anti-war activities in England.
"Well, I think it's a little misguided, the idea you can have these opinions at home but you don't have those opinions overseas," Admiral Crowe said. "When you're protesting a war, that's not protesting the U.S. government. We live in a free country, and we're free here, and we're free other places as well."
Mr. Clinton's first appearance yesterday, a walk along a roped-off section of predominantly black West Philadelphia, was intended to illustrate his interest in cities and minorities. Mr. Clinton also campaigned in a white ethnic neighborhood in South Philadelphia.
Mr. Clinton ended the day with a rally in Charlotte, N.C., featuring singer Harry Belafonte. It concluded with Mr. Clinton surrounded by supporters, including Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, one of several Congressional Black Caucus members participating in a southern voter-registration drive.
Mr. Mfume has backed Mr. Clinton reluctantly, saying he must reach out more to minorities.
Tonight: The Vice Presidential Debate
WHO: Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Al Gore, and retired Adm. James Stockdale will meet in the campaign's only debate among the vice-presidential candidates. Details Page 6A.
WHEN: 7 p.m.-8;30 p.m. EDT.
WHERE: Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.
FORMAT: Single, moderator, Hal Bruno, ABC.
LIVE COVERAGE: PBS, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and C-Span. Comedy Central plans satirical coverage.