TOMS RIVER, N.J. -- Like so many proud, but realistic, parents, Bob Dole's supporters here gave him an A, mostly for effort, in his debate Sunday night with President Clinton.
They liked his honesty, his forthrightness, his passing up of a chance to criticize Clinton for personal peccadilloes. But they wished he were a better speaker, a little more youthful-looking, and maybe that he had offered a more inclusive message.
In short, they worry that the first face-off may not have altered the dynamic of the presidential race.
"We're hoping and praying," said Millie Clemmensen, 67, of Whiting, who attended the first rally of Dole's two-day post-debate bus trip through this crucial battleground state. "I very much like his sincerity and his trust in people instead of the government, but I would just like to see Senator Dole be a little more forceful."
Some Dole supporters said they thought the nominee had met his campaign's goal of showing millions of voters a side of his personality -- an infectious wit, an ease with off-the-cuff repartee -- that hasn't been widely seen during Dole's more than three decades in Washington politics.
"I heard a lot of people say, going into this, that he couldn't hold his own one-on-one with Clinton, but he came across as very quick-witted and humorous, with a strong personality," said Chetra Kotzas, a real estate consultant.
As Dole was making a dramatic arrival in a red, white and blue helicopter, Kotzas said she thought his solid debate performance might at least focus public attention on the presidential race.
But a few miles away in Red Bank, where Dole's "buscapade" pulled in for a lunchtime rally, John Andia seemed doubtful that any debate could change the course of the campaign.
"There's not a lot to talk about," said Andia, an insurance salesman who said he supports Dole for lack of a "better" choice.
"There's really an unfortunate status quo," Andia said. "There are no hot topics to debate. That's Dole's biggest problem: He has to overcome the inertia of Clinton. We just don't have a lot of problems right now to deal with."
Even in tax-sensitive New Jersey, where Dole is trumpeting his vow of an across-the-board 15 percent tax cut, polls still put him more than 10 points behind the president.
"I don't think you're going to notice it," Andia said of the proposed tax cut.
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Dole's popular would-be role model, who accompanied him on the bus tour, won a come-from-behind victory two years ago by promising a 15 percent tax cut. But much of the state-tax money the governor returned to the people, Andia contended, was later snatched away by local governments.
Even so, the Dole campaign was claiming a clear victory in Sunday night's debate.
"With millions of dollars of negative advertising, the Clinton campaign has treated Bob Dole the way Roberto Alomar treats umpires," said Nelson Warfield, Dole's campaign press secretary. "But last night, Bob Dole was able to wipe away that negativism with wit, humor and compassion. He was able to connect with voters in a personal way, and that made it a terrific night for Bob Dole."
There was some evidence of that at Dole's rallies yesterday. While it was hard to find anyone who had just switched allegiance from Clinton to Dole, the Republican nominee may have cemented his support among some who had been wavering.
Joann Kopetsky, a police-records clerk from Milltown, was undecided but is now leaning Dole's way as a result of his debate performance.
"I was interested in hearing about health care and the economy, and I liked what he had to say," said Kopetsky, who voted for Clinton in 1992 but said she was disappointed by his record.
After hearing Dole yesterday at a rally in Milltown, Kopetsky said: "The more I see of him, the more I like him. I think he's going to change my mind."
Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, acknowledged that his candidate can count only 14 states where he is ahead and is still working to shore up his Republican base. Reed said the campaign was also planning to advertise on Christian radio stations, another sign that Dole's natural core of support is not yet secure.
Yesterday, the candidate himself seemed to have lost some of the glow of self-satisfaction he had flashed right after the debate. His mood may have been affected by overnight polls that suggested most voters thought Clinton had won the debate.
"We've got 30 days to go," Dole told the rally in Toms River. "As Jack Kemp says, 'Don't look up at the scoreboard; the game is still on.' "
Dole told the Milltown crowd that the contest boiled down to two words: trust and fear. Dole wants to be equated with trust; he says Clinton conjures up fear.
He declared that the fear campaign "won't work," but he showed he was sensitive to Clinton's complaints about Dole's support for Republican efforts to scale back education funding.
"We're not going to touch education," said Dole, who had said in the debate that he still supported the proposal to eliminate the Education Department. "We're not going to touch Medicare, we're not going to touch Social Security, all these things that President Clinton talks about."
Later, at a fund-raiser in New York, Dole asserted that when Clinton was listing his achievements during the debate, he sounded "like a law clerk, reading off all those things he was responsible for.
"All these things that didn't pass the first two years when there was a Democrat Congress, all these things passed by a Republican Congress he had never heard of because he didn't have an idea for four years."
Pub Date: 10/08/96