HARTFORD, Conn. -- Going into last night's debate with President Clinton, Bob Dole was not quite in the position of a boxer far behind on points and needing a knockout. There will be, after all, another debate. But the Republican nominee had to show that he belonged in the ring with the champ, and he did that with a serious and largely temperate performance.
For his part, the president was, as always, sharp and loaded with facts and figures.
But the Dole who showed up was far from the Dole who earned a lasting reputation for harsh invective 20 years ago in a vice-presidential debate with Walter F. Mondale, and has often been ridiculed as inarticulate. While hitting Clinton hard -- demanding, for example, that he "stop scaring" senior citizens about losing their Medicare -- Dole took pains to show respect, even deference, to the president, while still displaying his penchant for the needle.
"I will address you as Mr. President," he said at one point. "You didn't do that with President Bush in 1992," Dole said twice, referring to presidential debates then.
Once again, as he has been doing for weeks, Dole criticized the president as a liberal, leading Clinton to call the liberal charge "sort of their golden oldie."
The president argued, "I don't think that dog will hunt," in light of his actions to downsize government, reform welfare and fight crime with more police on the streets, the ban on assault weapons and the Brady law to limit gun sales.
The result last night was a debate long on substance and relatively short on name-calling and scatter-shot allegations. At the same time, the evening did not produce the kind of defining moment that might make or break either candidacy. And so Clinton walked away with one debate behind him and, very probably, his lead in the polls preserved.
In showing that he was a worthy challenger to the incumbent, however, Dole achieved what John F. Kennedy did in 1960 in his first of four debates with Richard M. Nixon -- establishing enough credibility to be taken seriously as an adversary of a national figure already holding high office.
The same was true for Ronald Reagan in his 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter. Reagan was able to dispel nagging perceptions that, as a former movie actor, he was in over his head against a sitting president.
But Dole faces a challenge this time around that neither Kennedy nor Reagan did: polls that show him lagging well behind in most of the key battleground states he will need to construct an Electoral College victory. As last night's debate began, Dole had much ground to make up, and afterward he probably still does, with only one more debate left.
In that second debate, Dole will be under pressure to do something to jolt voters out of their seeming lack of interest in him.
As for the president, his front-running position put him less at risk last night. His task essentially was to maintain an even keel while defending his record and avoiding any comment or response that might reveal him as uninformed or dissembling. He largely succeeded.
In this first debate, Dole was in a sense a prisoner of his past as a debater on the national stage. He could not afford to repeat his erratic and sometimes bitter performance in his debate with Mondale 20 years ago. Yet it was critical for his campaign's chances of a fresh start that he take the debate to Clinton, striving to exploit weaknesses in the Clinton record as president and promises he made in the 1992 campaign that have not been kept.
For many who voted in 1976, the Dole-Mondale debate has remained in public memory chiefly for Dole's charge that World Wars I and II and the Korean War were "Democrat wars." Mondale quickly replied, "Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight by implying" that in these wars, including the war against Nazi Germany, "There was a partisan difference over our involvement."
Ever since, Dole has had a hard time living down his reputation as a verbal slasher, and he certainly did not want to solidify it last night. But the reality of his lagging campaign demanded, at the same time, that he go on the attack against Clinton, and he did.
One of Dole's strong points as a public figure has always been his biting sense of humor, but here again he was somewhat of a prisoner of his past in using it to advantage last night. In the debate with Mondale, his humor often came across as flippant, as when he said of his opponent: "We've been friends, and we'll be friends when this debate is over and the election is over -- and he'll still be in the Senate."
Dole could not afford such flippancy this time around -- too much was at stake for his own presidential ambitions -- and he largely avoided it. When asked to comment on Clinton's statement, "We're better off than we were four years ago," Dole smiled and said, "Well, he's better off than he was four years ago. Maybe I'll be better off four years from now."
When the moderator, Jim Lehrer, asked Dole whether he still believed in his 15 percent tax cut proposal, Dole said that he did, and that Lehrer would be eligible, and "so would the former president."
But Dole made these comments obviously in jest, and when asked how he differed with Clinton personally, he demurred, saying: "I don't like to get into personal matters."
Dole still has one more debate to go. The burden rests with him not only to avoid his past debating mistakes but to give the voters reasons to choose him over an incumbent who is high in the polls and enjoying the political benefits of a generally healthy economy.
Pub Date: 10/07/96