WASHINGTON -- In the post-game shows immediately following the presidential debate Sunday night, the near consensus among analysts and pundits was that Bill Clinton, by virtue of his not having goofed, had won.
But by yesterday morning, after television had put the sound bites and instant polls and commentary through its spin cycle, networks proclaimed Ross Perot the "big winner." And by last evening, the Texas quipmeister was being hailed as the "star of the night."
As modern political history has demonstrated, presidential debates are of, by and for television -- so television generally decides who wins. Such TV spin, say political scientists, is generally as important, if not more important, than the actual event. And Sunday's debate and subsequent commentary is a classic example of how perceptions and public opinions are largely defined by television.
Most newspapers across the country heralded performances by both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Perot in debate headlines yesterday, agreeing there were no knockouts, no home runs, only a clear-cut loser in George Bush. And most political analysts, while noting Mr. Perot's snappy and endearing performance earned him high marks in post-debate polls and most likely, a temporary bounce, still couched their praise for him with more caveats than the billionaire had one-liners.
In fact, with the exception of ABC's Cokie Roberts, who declared on Sunday night that "Ross Perot won this debate," most political observers tended to give the top prize to Mr. Clinton and played down the ultimate significance of Mr. Perot's performance.
"He was funny, interesting, had a lot to say . . . but in the end, the problem for Perot is that he missed the key business of campaigning across the middle of the country this summer and it's too late now," said Oakland Tribune editor Bob Maynard, spinning on CNN Sunday night.
On yesterday's morning network shows, political pundits were weighing in with similar assessments:
"Obviously Bill Clinton won," said Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant who managed Mr. Perot's campaign earlier this year, on "CBS This Morning." "I think Perot did very well, but Clinton clearly won," said Andrea Mitchell, on NBC's "Today" show.
Morton Dean, of ABC, said, "We always knew he (Mr. Perot) was good box office. But it's a long trip from the box office to the ballot box."
Still, there was enough of a Perot boomlet that the morning shows aired separate segments on the quixotic billionaire -- which they didn't do for the other two candidates -- and hailed him in their introductions as the surprise of the debate and a significant player once again.
"Many of the experts say Perot was the big winner in this first debate," declared NBC's Jim Cummins, contradicting all of the "experts" on the NBC show yesterday morning who pointed to the Democrat as the big winner.
"The message last night was clear. The candidate who was in and out is in all the way," said Bill Lagattuta of CBS News.
"The star of the show, if you believe the headlines in most papers across the country this morning, seems to be Ross Perot,"
declared ABC's Mike Schneider.
By the evening news it was official. "The story of the night was the man who did not win a single primary vote or delegate," said ABC's Jeff Greenfield, ". . . a man whose watchword last night might have been, 'Read my quips.' "
But as nearly every network news program carefully pointed out last night, winning a debate doesn't necessarily mean winning an election. Peter Jennings reported on ABC News that, while 90 percent of those who believe Mr. Bush won the debate plan to vote for him -- and ditto for Mr. Clinton -- only 42 percent of those who declared Mr. Perot the winner say they'll cast their ballot for him.
Some of the Perot momentum unleashed by TV yesterday was spurred by spinners for both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, all eager to sing the praises of the Texas businessman and thereby send their chief opponent to the back of the pack. Each candidate also believes that a strong Perot showing will most hurt the competition.
Also strongly contributing to the Perot fervor were public opinion polls that suggested the majority of viewers thought the feisty independent candidate had won the debate.
But ABC's poll, the first post-debate survey aired Sunday night, showed Mr. Clinton in the lead, with Mr. Perot placing second. Only in later polls did Mr. Perot take command of the lead, by three points over the Arkansas governor in a CBS News poll, by a 17 point lead in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
Some analysts aren't sure whether polls such as these drive the coverage or whether the coverage drives the polls. Marion Just, a political science professor and fellow at the Harvard center on politics and media, noted, "There was a lot of commentary about how surprisingly well Perot did. In this case, I'd be inclined to think the commentary affected the polls."
Besides the Perot wave that swept yesterday's post-debate coverage, television was also singing in unison its declaration of Mr. Bush as the clear loser in Sunday night's encounter.
Network reporters and anchors were unabashed in their dismissals of the president's showing. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski said the Bush spinners were "on the edge of desperation."