Down to his last chance at the podium, President Bush struck back hard and won the third and final presidential debate last night, according to a panel of eight Baltimore-area voters who watched all three debates together during the past nine days. But their comments indicated he might still have a tough time winning over enough undecided voters on Election Day.
Although the tone of the debate was far more fierce than either of the first two, it was once again policy specifics, not personal sniping, that carried the day among the panel.
"His [Mr. Bush's] attacks were very aggressive tonight, but they were not mudslinging," said Russ Bonchu Jr., 46, a Bush supporter from Harford County. "They were attacks of facts."
Even Mr. Clinton's two supporters on the eight-member panel --
two others support Mr. Bush, one supports independent candidate Ross Perot and three are undecided -- grudgingly praised Mr. Bush's performance, though both said they still backed Mr. Clinton.
As a result of his performance, Mr. Bush may have picked up a vote among the panel's three undecided voters. All three had been leaning toward Mr. Clinton after the first two debates, but one said last night he was now leaning toward the president, although he was "still up in the air."
That voter, Mike Houchins, 23, of Howard County, said, "Clinton had some great ideas, but the main question was how he was going to fund it." Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot, he said, raised enough questions last night about that problem that it "really reduced his [Mr. Clinton's] stock in my book."
In the tally from last night, three panelists said Mr. Bush won, three said the president tied with Mr. Perot
for top honors, and two said Mr. Clinton and Mr. Perot tied. None said Mr. Clinton won outright.
There was good news for Mr. Clinton in the sum total of the three debates, however. The panel had picked him as the clear winner of the first two debates, and in rating the overall debate performance of the candidates, four said Mr. Clinton emerged on top, two said Mr. Clinton tied with Mr. Bush, two chose Mr. Bush, and one picked Mr. Perot.
Perhaps most significant was that two of the undecided voters were still leaning toward Mr. Clinton, as they had been after the first two debates. As with Mr. Houchins' support of the president, both say their support is not firm.
Mr. Clinton won their tentative support with specifics, they said, by repeating point after point of his proposed programs.
"Basically, I like what he [Mr. Clinton] had to say," said Darlyn Youngman, 29, an undecided voterfrom Baltimore County. "And like Clinton said, it's time for a change."
If there was a single, overriding message from the panel throughout most of the debates, it was that nice guys finish first as long as they clearly address the issues. But in the end the panelists also agreed that it was OK to get a little nasty as long as your attacks were based on the issues.
That means that Mr. Bush's aggressive attack on Mr. Clinton's protests against the Vietnam War while a college student fell flat in the first debate, but his attacks on Mr. Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas scored points last night.
Mr. Bonchu also liked the way Mr. Bush linked Mr. Clinton to the failed policies of Democratic President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to the end of 1980. Mr. Bush "is going to have to hammer on that in the next two weeks," Mr. Bonchu said.
Mr. Bush had trouble generating such support among panel members
during the first two debates. No one picked him as the winner of the first, and only his two backers chose him as winner of the second.
But from the beginning last night the panel seemed to sense new life in the president's style. Bush supporter Bonchu in particular reacted strongly as both Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot took shots at Mr. Clinton early on.
When Mr. Perot dismissed Mr. Clinton's gubernatorial record as "irrelevant," Mr. Bonchu reacted almost like a football fan celebrating a touchdown, pounding a table and shouting, "Oh, he's taking it to Clinton tonight."
The panel members had also not been particularly impressed with Mr. Perot until last night, not even when he earned high marks in national polls during the first debate with his fresh style of blunt answers and folksy humor. The panel instead rated him that night as humorous but inconsequential, perhaps partly because several members said they'd
crossed him off their lists the moment he first dropped out of the race.
When Mr. Perot used the same tactics in the second debate, the panel grew weary of him, and polls indicated that some of the national electorate did as well.
But last night several panelists gave him high marks for making new arguments and said he scored in his attacks on the Bush administration's policy with Iraq.
Also, just about everybody on the panel credited Mr. Perot's unorthodox style as having prodded Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton to behave more civilly and answer questions more directly.
The panel was selected for The Sun by House Market Research Inc. of Potomac. Four members are male; four are female. They range in age from 19 to 71, and they come from a variety of backgrounds -- from medical assistant to sales clerk, from homemaker to retiree. Seven are white. One is black.