EAST LANSING, Mich. -- With his back to the wall, President Bush gave it his best shot in the third and final presidential debate last night, and it proved to be the same argument, more aggressively presented, that he has been making all fall -- that Bill Clinton can't be trusted with the presidency.
The president, after relatively benign performances in the first two debates, came out much more focused -- on what he repeatedly called a "pattern" of Mr. Clinton's flip-flopping on positions and on the Arkansas governor's 12-year record of stewardship in his economically poor state.
At the same time, clearly sensitive to the complaints of mud-slinging leveled by voter-questioners in the second debate in Richmond, Va., Thursday night, Mr. Bush took pains to deny that he was engaging in unfair tactics by going after Mr. Clinton.
After a recitation of his view of the Arkansas record, which in many categories he said was "right near the very bottom," the president insisted that "it's not dirty campaigning because he's been talking about my record for a half a year here, 11 months here. So we've got to do that. I gotta get it in perspective."
Mr. Clinton, for his part, countered the "trust" issue by reminding voters that it was Mr. Bush who told voters in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech to "read my lips" on no new taxes, and who in 1980 called Ronald Reagan's economic program "voodoo economics," and then embraced it as Mr. Reagan's running mate and vice president and in his own presidency.
The Arkansas governor also pointedly reminded Mr. Bush of the voters' admonitions in the Richmond debate to stick to the issues and put personalities behind them. In so doing, he sought to set himself up as the candidate who was listening to what the voters want in this election.
If the president was at his best as an aggressor in the final debate, Mr. Clinton was also at his best as a counterpuncher, never hesitating to defend his record as a state administrator while reciting his charge that trickle-down economics as practiced in the Reagan-Bush era was responsible for the country's slow growth and high unemployment.
In a discussion on whether Mr. Clinton's plans to tax the rich more heavily would also hit the middle class, as Mr. Bush had charged, the president got in what was perhaps the best single remark of the night.
The Arkansas governor reminded the audience that the president had "made some news" in the first debate by saying that his current White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III would be "responsible for domestic economic policy" in a second Bush administration.
Mr. Clinton went on: "I'll make some news in the third debate. The person responsible for domestic economic policy in my administration will be Bill Clinton. I'm going to make those decisions, and I won't raise taxes on the middle class to pay for my programs."
But the fact remained that in his final debate pitch to the voters, the president opted once again to try to undercut voter confidence in his opponent rather than to sell voters on his own plan for economic recovery. While in style Mr. Bush markedly improved on his two earlier debate performances, in substance he offered nothing new of a positive thrust to bring voters to his side.
The president again accused Mr. Clinton of waffling on his support of the North American Trade Agreement, on whether sanctions or force should have been imposed against Saddam Hussein and on his statements about his draft record. Mr. Clinton's positions didn't bother him as much, the president said, as his switching and never admitting that he made a mistake.
Mr. Bush made much of his own admission that he had made a mistake in accepting the 1990 budget compromise that obliged him to renege on his promise not to raise taxes. But Mr. Clinton countered effectively when he said: "The mistake that was made [by Mr. Bush] was making the 'read my lips' promise in the first place just to get elected, knowing what the size of the deficit was."
For all the aggression that the president showed in the final debate, the 90-minute exchange was remarkably temperate considering the high stakes, and remarkably repetitive of arguments made by all three candidates in the first two debates.
If the president is helped by his performance, it likely will not be because of anything he said, but the manner in which he said it. For the first time, he seemed to be truly engaged and determined to bring the fight to the governor of Arkansas.
The next round of polls will be watched eagerly in both the Bush and Clinton camps. If the president does not markedly close the lead that Mr. Clinton holds in the next few days to a week, all his aggressiveness in the last debate probably won't make much difference in the electoral-vote arithmetic that threatens his hopes for a second term.