WASHINGTON -- Early in his contentious debate with Vice President Al Gore last night, Ross Perot observed that "this is not an athletic contest." What was equally obvious, if unstated, was that neither was it an educational experience.
If there was a winner by the usual standards applied to political debates, it was the vice president, who showed himself as a confident and forceful advocate for the North American Free Trade Agreement, unsettling Mr. Perot repeatedly and hammering home the administration's basic message on several occasions by declaring "the politics of negativism and fear go only so far."
Whether that strong performance will impress the electorate is, of course, another question. The White House case for the treaty rests heavily on the credentials of those who support it -- the five former presidents most notably -- at a time when political leaders are viewed with deep suspicion.
But what was clear, at the least, is that this was a night Al Gore wasn't going to be blown away by Ross Perot's mastery of sound bites and one-liners.
In one sense, the much-heralded confrontation followed the form charts almost exactly.
Mr. Gore was far more focused on specifics. Mexico is already the United States' second largest customer for manufactured goods. Of 23 studies of NAFTA's potential, 22 have found it would produce more jobs for Americans. The treaty would be agood deal for rubber workers in Tennessee and a small electrical company in Danville, Ill.
Just as predictably, Mr. Perot made repeated thrusts at the raw nerves already identified in the electorate -- including that pervasive suspicion of the government and political leaders. Look at the "read my lips" record on tax increases, he advised. Look at the pitiably short estimates on the costs of the Medicare program, he said. "They basically come out with phony numbers," the Texas billionaire said at one point.
The fear among NAFTA supporters that Mr. Gore would be too stiff to deal with the freewheeling Mr. Perot proved unfounded. On the contrary, the vice president was aggressive and at times showed a hard edge. "I don't want to just sit here and listen to you take shots at President Clinton on other subjects," he said sternly.
Mr. Gore was tough enough and persistent enough so that he obviously irritated his opponent repeatedly. Growing increasingly testy as the 90-minute television program wore on, Mr. Perot complained repeatedly that he was being interrupted and denied a fair hearing. Although moderator Larry King reported at several points that each had been given the same amount of time to make his case, Mr. Perot obviously didn't think so. "I really would appreciate being able to speak," he said several times.
The independent presidential candidate from 1992 was blunt in his thrusts at the usual political rhetoric. "Would you know the truth even if you saw it?" he asked Mr. Gore rhetorically, then added: "You've been up here too long." At another point, he asked: "Do you guys do anything but propaganda?"
What was missing, however, was anything that might have answered the root questions on the minds of American voters, close to one-third of whom still say in opinion polls that they don't know enough about NAFTA to form an opinion.
Nor is there any assurance that the 90 minutes of hot rhetoric has any connection to how the House of Representatives will vote next week. The White House hope in taking on Mr. Perot was to cut the ground from under his arguments by showing he lacked specific information to support them, just as was the case when he complained as a presidential candidate about the deficit and taxes. And, although Mr. Perot produced some of his fabled colored charts to support his arguments, he never did come up with the kind of facts and figures that would make a convincing case against NAFTA.
What cannot be determined, however, is how much facts and figures have to do with the debate that has been growing increasingly acrimonious over the last few days. Instead, it appears to be a case of Americans deciding who they are going to believe -- and of Democratic members of the House deciding whether they can support the treaty or humiliate the first Democratic president in 12 years after less than 12 months in the White House.