SAN DIEGO -- "Is It Over?" Newsweek magazine brazenly asked on its cover a week ago.
Amid the superspin and whirl of analysis that followed the final presidential debate Wednesday night -- a faceoff that had been billed by many as Bob Dole's last chance to turn the race for the White House around -- pundits took on the pointed question, all but closing the book on the 1996 presidential election weeks before voters go to the polls.
By yesterday morning, the pronouncements, deplored by media experts for their presumptuousness, had gelled into "conventional wisdom," settling on the campaign with the pervasiveness of the morning fog here.
"I don't think he can do anything really to win the race now," Republican analyst William Kristol said on morning television yesterday.
"He's got one strategy left -- it's called prayer," Democratic strategist Bob Beckel quipped.
"The Republican Party has to resign itself to his defeat," conservative columnist and commentator George Will lamented moments after the debate ended.
Press critic Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, calls these comments "outrageous."
"People used to exercise some restraint," he said. "There isn't any anymore. The competitive juices take over; everyone wants to be the first to put the thing to bed."
Although a number of analysts praised Dole's performance Wednesday night, the spin that swept over the debate was that the Republican challenger did not do what he needed to do to break Clinton's double-digit lead.
For his part, Dole, campaigning in California, shrugged off the dire predictions.
"You haven't seen anything yet," he said yesterday morning. Later, he told reporters: "The party is going to make gains, and I am going to get elected."
But the swarm of strategists, pollsters and TV analysts who have been tracking every hiccup of the race, some on a daily basis, jumped to the finish line and all but declared Dole out. Their prognostications reflected polls that have reported that 75 percent to 80 percent of the public believes that Clinton will be re-elected.
They also reflected instant polls by the television networks, at least one released within the hour of the final handshake between Clinton and Dole, that showed Clinton winning the debate by a better than 2-to-1 margin.
Anticipating the spate of dark predictions that would follow his final showdown with Clinton, Dole delivered a pre-emptive strike Tuesday.
"Some will say it's already over," he said, speaking to the Electronic Industries Association in Coronado, Calif. "Well, Yogi Berra is one of my advisers. It ain't over till it's over. Twenty-one days."
In the past several election cycles, pundits and pollsters have been anxious to forecast winners and losers, usually dispensing with caution after the final debate. Some media critics, disturbed by the practice, have called for a sort of analysis-free zone surrounding presidential debates.
Political scientist Sabato believes such premature pronouncements not only demoralize the trailing party but also lower voter turnout as in 1988, when, he says, supporters of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis thought "What the heck?" -- and only 50 percent of the electorate, the lowest in modern times, cast a ballot.
"I pray for the day we all have to get out our crow recipes. We need another 1948 where everyone is humiliated and embarrassed," said Sabato, referring to Harry S. Truman's surprise victory that year in defiance of conventional wisdom and a notorious "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. "That's what it will take."
Dole, too, seemed to relish the idea of proving his opponent wrong. The morning after Election Day, he said yesterday, "Bill Clinton will be the most surprised man in America."
And he wouldn't be alone. The post-debate predictions have even moved beyond talk of a Clinton victory to its ramifications for the congressional races.
"With a comfortable lead," said NBC's Jim Miklaszewski on yesterday morning's "Today" show, "the president may turn more of his time and effort to try to retake control of Congress."
George Will, in his post-debate analysis Wednesday night on ABC, said the Republican Party will have to do "something brutal" to Dole. "It has to advertise his defeat and try and save itself in Congress by going to the country and saying, 'You're going to have a Democratic president. Do you want him unrestrained by a countervailing force in Congress?' "
In the dizzying and jam-packed media center Wednesday night -- where Clinton-Gore spinmasters handed out plastic tops with NTC their sound-bites and euphoria -- GOP spinners insisted that their candidate was a man with momentum who dominated the debate and had Clinton on the defensive, while Democrats countered that Dole's time was running out.
He did not "score the knock-out punch" he needed (White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta). Did not "gain any ground" (the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson), "move the needle" (White House consultant Bob Barnett) or "meet the test" (Clinton aide Ann Lewis).
The army of Democratic spinners included everyone from Alma Brown, wife of the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, to Connecticut senator and Democratic party chief Christopher J. Dodd, who even spun for Spanish-speaking radio and TV stations.
Whatever language they spoke -- Spanish, English or unreconstructed partisan Pablum -- the Clintonites were reluctant to appear overconfident and call the race. But a few came close.
"We are 90 minutes closer to a historic re-election," said presidential aide George Stephanopoulos, who was crowded by crush of reporters and TV cameras moments after the debate.
Dole's spin patrol -- everyone from former Cabinet members to Dole's Senate buddy John McCain of Arizona -- put out the word that the Republican nominee was gaining in the polls and had time to win over voters and, ultimately, pull off a victory.
Dole aide Charles Black said the former senator's plan to concentrate on the vote-rich state of California in the remaining three weeks "should give people pause to declare it over."
"He's already shifted the landscape," said former GOP Secretary of State George P. Schultz. "I think he's on a roll."
Like the Democrats, the Republican governors, mayors and lawmakers watched the debate in a "surrogates holding room" and decided on their line of attack before venturing out to Spin Central trailed by aides holding up signs bearing their names.
Michigan Gov. John Engler was the first out of the gate, starting his sales pitch 10 minutes before the debate ended.
"Tremendous performance tonight. Sharp contrast. Clinton looked defensive, uptight, his jaw muscle down there was twitching away. Pretty lame."
Minutes later, Dole campaign manager Scott Reed emerged with the same observations. "Dole obviously dominated the debate. Hands-down winner. Clinton looked defensive, had that jaw sticking out a little bit."
The talk of Clinton's jaw and Dole's jabs, the winners and losers, went on for several hours in the bazaar-like, quotes-for-sale spin room Wednesday night -- and of course is likely to proceed through the weekend with more TV punditry that all but finishes off the 1996 presidential race.
"Stuck," said CBS' Kevin Phillips yesterday. "Frozen," said NBC's Tim Russert. "Static," said ABC's Cokie Roberts.
"Unfair," says Sabato. Such commentary, he adds, "basically means a challenger can do nothing to change the reality -- unless lightning strikes."
Pub Date: 10/18/96