WASHINGTON -- The television debate between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot isn't likely to decide the outcome of the vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement one way or the other. In the end, individual House members will weigh the intellectual arguments and the political ramifications of their own votes for themselves in deciding whether to support NAFTA or help scuttle it.
But the debate on the "Larry King Live" show could go a long way, at least among close political watchers, toward firming up opinions about the abilities and credibility of the two men. And if so, that will be good news for Gore and bad news for Perot.
While the vice president may have come across again as somewhat wooden to some, he was no wind-up toy. He mixed strong, coherent answers on the substance of NAFTA with an aggressive yet generally courteous and sometimes humorous offensive on Perot's credibility, and his failure to be specific about his counterproposals and the financing of the anti-NAFTA campaign.
Perot on the other hand frequently was testy, petulant and complaining as he sought to match Gore's specificity with sound bites and one-liners, many of them retreads from his 1992 presidential bid.
He griped after the debate that Gore had turned it into a personal attack on him, which in a sense was true, but Gore's questions about Perot's financial connection with a free-zone airport in Texas geared to accept Mexican exports to the United States clearly had relevance to NAFTA.
Frustration at the White House over the free ride Perot had been getting was a key factor in the decision to have Gore take him on, and in retrospect it probably was a wise one.
While it did give Perot greater visibility and an elevating platform being put on a level with the vice president, the event magnified his weaknesses more than his strengths.
Some post-debate commentators said they saw an irritability and contemptuousness in Perot they had not seen before, which raises the question of whether they were on another planet last year when he lashed out repeatedly at anyone with the temerity to question him on anything, from his personal finances to his views on the key issues of the day.
Perot's appeal has always been more emotional than intellectual, so it may be that voters who loved him going into the debate will still love him for the way he played the put-upon battler for the little guy, lamenting on one occasion to King that he thought the show's host would be asking the questions, not Gore.
The acid test on Perot will come next November, when congressional election results demonstrate whether he is a political powerhouse or blowhard in his threat, on behalf of his United We Stand, America followers, to vote out of office House members who dare to buck him, and them, with a pro-NAFTA vote on Nov. 17.
Gore, for his part, almost certainly has raised his own stock in the White House with his debate performance and earned an increasingly more responsible and visible role as the chief troubleshooter for President Clinton in the political arena.
His transformation from a woefully transparent opportunist as a presidential candidate in 1988 to an effective and convincing team player, which began as Clinton's running mate last year on the campaign trail, has been notably advanced in his nearly 10 months as vice president.
In the 1992 campaign, when Gore debated then Vice President Dan Quayle, he was criticized by some for not making a strong enough defense of Clinton against Quayle's broadsides, and for joining in what many saw as a demeaning verbal slugfest.
In his debate the other night with Perot, he defended his boss forcefully and engaged Perot without descending to the name-calling that demeaned Perot's own performance.
No doubt Perot will continue his slashing style and claim credit if NAFTA goes down for a host of reasons.
But Gore showed that the best way to deal with him is not to turn the other cheek, but to confront him aggressively whenever he sets himself up as a one-man political wrecking crew.