RICHMOND, Va. -- The presidential candidates fielded questions from an audience of ordinary citizens last night in a subdued political experiment that broke little fresh ground in the 1992 race.
President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, were far more restrained than they were in Sunday's opening debate. For the most part, they and independent Ross Perot stuck to the issues at the insistence of the audience, while taking advantage of the generally soft questions to recite segments of their stump speeches.
Mr. Perot, who made a splash in the first debate with his colorful one-liners, generated the only piece of real news, by promising to serve only one term if elected. The Texas tycoon also said he would not accept the $200,000 a year presidential salary.
For the first time in the history of presidential debates, the candidates faced questions from ordinary, undecided voters, who fired away on everything from inner city problems to the "new world order."
Mr. Bush, who stressed his experience in government and his success as a world leader, once again attacked Mr. Clinton as a "tax and spend" Democrat.
The president also answered a charge that he had left unanswered Sunday night, when Mr. Clinton accused him of McCarthyite smears of the sort Mr. Bush's father, Sen. Prescott Bush, once condemned. Mr. Bush used it to contrast his military service with Mr. Clinton's avoidance of the draft, and to again raise questions about his opponent's honesty.
"I remember something my dad told me. I was 18 years old, going to Penn Station to go into the Navy, and he said, '. . . tell the truth.' And I've tried to do that in public life, all through it. That says something about character," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Clinton, who watched with a bemused expression as the president spoke, replied: "I'm not interested in his [Mr. Bush's] character. I want to change the character of the presidency."
In his closing statement, Mr. Bush asked the audience to imagine that the United States would face a crisis "in the next five minutes."
"My question is, who . . . would you choose? Who has the perseverance, the character, the integrity and the maturity to get the job done? I hope I'm that person," Mr. Bush said.
But Mr. Bush stumbled when he criticized Congress for paying "a lot of lip service" to his proposal for enterprise zones that would spur private investment in inner cities.
The moderator, Carole Simpson of ABC News, was quick to call Mr. Bush on the fact that he is planning to veto a bill, just passed by Congress, that includes an enterprise zone initiative.
"Sure," Mr. Bush replied, blaming it on "pork" that Congress had added to the measure. And within minutes Bush aides had distributed a press release that quoted a New York Times editorial commenting that the bill wasn't "worth passing."
Mr. Clinton shot back that the threatened Bush veto had more to do with the fact that the aid package would be financed by a tax increase on wealthy Americans.
In fact, the provisions that would have raised taxes on the wealthy were dropped to make the bill more palatable to Mr. Bush. The bill includes about three dozen minor, technical tax increases that would raise $27 billion in Treasury revenue, but none is aimed specifically at the wealthy.
Mr. Clinton tried repeatedly to portray himself as the candidate who is most in touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Marisa Hall, 25, a mechanical drafter from Richmond, pressed the candidates on whether they could really empathize with people who have lost their jobs, or been unable to meet their mortgage payments or their monthly bills because of the burden of the federal debt and the recession.
"I've been governor of a small state for 12 years," Mr. Clinton said. "When people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names."
Mr. Perot, the richest man ever to seek the presidency, said the country's economic distress had "caused me to disrupt my private life and my business to get involved in this activity. That's how much I care about it. And believe me, if you knew my family and if you knew the private life I have, you would agree in a minute that that's a whole lot more fun than getting involved in politics."
Mr. Bush had trouble with the question.
"You, on a personal basis, how has it affected you?" Ms. Hall asked.
"I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren," the president responded. "Listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear and see what I see and read the mail I read and touch the people that I touch from time to time."
Mr. Perot took several opportunities to plug his half-hour paid commercial at 10:30 tonight on NBC. "Like Jerry Brown, the 800 number," Mr. Bush remarked.
The Texas billionaire, in an attempt to spark his lagging campaign, said, "If the American [people] send me up to do this job, I intend to be there one term. I do not intend to spend one minute of one day thinking about re-election. And as a matter of principle -- and my situation is unique and I understand it -- I would take absolutely no compensation. I go as their servant."
The 90-minute encounter had even fewer light moments than the first debate last weekend. Mr. Perot, recalling his own remark that he was "all ears," expressed a wish that plastic surgery might be performed on members of Congress, so they would listen more to the people and less to high-paid lobbyists.
In fact, Mr. Perot once sought what at the time would have been the largest tax break ever paid to a private citizen by hiring his own Washington lobbyist and making large campaign contributions to members of the House tax-writing committee.
Some of the sharpest language came from Ms. Simpson, the moderator, who spiced the program with some jabs of her own.
To Mr. Perot, she remarked, "You've got an answer for everything, don't you?" And when the subject turned to the problems of the public schools, she twitted Mr. Bush by recalling his claim to be "the education president."
Mr. Clinton, who is often accused of trying to please everyone, seemed to take special pride in saying no to a suggestion by one questioner that he pledge to resign after one term if he fails to reduce the deficit by a set amount.
"You'll get a shot at me in four years, and you can vote me out if I don't do a good job," Mr. Clinton said with a smile.
The Democratic nominee, gently criticizing Mr. Perot at several points in the evening, said the Texan's own economic adviser -- who now backs Mr. Clinton -- had said that unemployment would rise for four years if the Perot economic plan were enacted.
Last night's event, in the Robins Center basketball arena on the University of Richmond campus, employed a novel debate format. Instead of a panel of journalists, or a single moderator, the questions came from a scientifically selected audience of ordinary citizens.
The Gallup Organization chose about 300 Richmond area voters who described themselves as undecided or who were only loosely committed to any of the candidates ("soft leaners," in polling lingo). Only about half of those who were asked to come actually showed up.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsored the debate on behalf of the Bush and Clinton campaigns, had hoped to achieve a racial balance in the audience that approximated that of the country at large. But they were unable to find enough uncommitted black voters, a commission spokesman said.
On Monday evening, the fourth and final debate is to take place on the Michigan State University campus. There will be a split format, with a single moderator in the first half and a panel of journalists firing questions for the final 45 minutes.
With less than three weeks to go until the election, Mr. Clinton holds a lead of up 15 percentage points over Mr. Bush, his nearest rival, according to several recent polls. The latest CNN-Gallup survey, released yesterday, showed the Democrat at 47 percent, Mr. Bush at 32 percent and Mr. Perot at 15 percent.
The CNN poll, taken after the first debate in St. Louis on Sunday, found that Mr. Bush is now viewed more unfavorably by voters than Mr. Perot, whose "negative" ratings had reached record heights earlier in the campaign.
But an ABC News poll released last night showed the race considerably closer than other surveys.
According to ABC, Mr. Clinton's lead over Mr. Bush was just 7 percentage points -- 44 percent to 37 percent -- the closest result of any major poll this fall. Mr. Perot was at 11 percent in the ABC survey, which has also shown greater variation than other national polls in recent months.