Another debate for a tuned-in public


We do not recall a presidential election in which there has been so much voter interest, so much public opinion volatility and so much information. The press has done a good job in telling citizens what the candidates believe.

So have the candidates themselves. The three presidential debates, which concluded in Michigan last night, were by no means perfect, but they were helpful. That the public liked them is seen in the audience numbers. The first one, for example, drew four times as many viewers as the Toronto-Oakland playoff baseball game. The second attracted an audience of 90 million.

Such ratings are only one indicator of voters' tuning in to this election. Nationwide, voter registration is on a roll.

While precise national figures are not available, anecdotal evidence in every region suggests a new national record will be set this year -- after years in which voter interest declined.

Here in Maryland, registration had already hit an all-time high on Sept. 30, before the as-yet-untabulated surge of Marylanders after that who rushed to beat the Oct. 5 registration deadline.

As for voter volatility, it is such that pollsters can't measure public opinion from day to day with any confidence.

Three major journalistic organizations employing highly respected professional polling organizations came to quite different conclusions last weekend. One had Bill Clinton ahead by 18 percentage points, one by 12 and one by 10.

Perhaps more interesting is that in another respected poll, a third of the respondents saying they would vote for George Bush and a third saying they would vote for Governor Clinton also said they had not really made up their minds.

Two-thirds of those saying they would vote for Ross Perot said they had not made up their minds. In other words, nearly 40 percent of those polled might change their votes in the next two weeks.

That says to us there really ought to be another debate -- between George Bush and Bill Clinton. Even in this volatile year, Mr. Perot has been stuck at 10-12 percent in the polls since he re-entered the race. He has some good ideas and is an entertaining character, as he showed again last night, but he is not a bona fide candidate for president. He is not out pressing the flesh or conducting other traditional presidential-candidate business.

Ross Perot deserved his appearance on stage with Messrs. Bush and Clinton at least once or twice and maybe even three times -- but the American people deserve at least one chance to compare the real candidates side by side and face to face.

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