Campaign in its final lap 19 days to go: Final presidential debate leaves control of Congress the key question.


WITH THE presidential debates now part of the history of the 1996 campaign, attention is bound to focus in the 19 days remaining on the battle for control of Congress. Republican challenger Bob Dole was gritty and determined in his last face-to-face encounter with an elusive President Clinton, but he remains at a distinct disadvantage in all the major opinion polls.

Mr. Dole has to hope for the breakthrough that, so far, has never come: Perhaps hard evidence that Indonesian political contributions to the Democratic Party influenced U.S policy toward the Suharto regime. Or a crisis in Russia that makes a shambles of administration efforts to foster democracy in that country.

At Wednesday night's debate in San Diego, the GOP candidate went on the attack, citing "scandals almost on a daily basis" in the Clinton presidency and stressing, repeatedly, that his word was his bond -- that he could be counted upon to keep his promises. But Mr. Clinton refused to take the bait. He ignored personal jabs and innuendo before finally saying: "No attack ever created a job or educated a child. . . No insult ever cleared up a toxic waste dump or helped an elderly person."

That was the president's best line. His worst came when he mocked the Dole pledge to cut income tax rates, saying, "We've tried this before, promising people an election-year tax cut that's not paid for." Mr. Dole seized the opening, saying, "We tried it the last time you ran" -- an allusion to the Clinton promise in 1992 of a "middle-class tax cut" that never materialized.

Whether the debate will change the essential dynamics of the campaign is doubtful. Although Mr. Dole came through with a good performance, the town-hall format was a Clinton specialty and the president was judged an easy winner in audience-reaction polls. Under the rules, the candidates were not permitted to question one another or argue directly. They had to take questions from a group of undecided voters who noticeably responded to Mr. Clinton's use of eye contact and empathy.

Almost nothing of substance was added to the campaign dialogue. Perhaps it is too late. In the time remaining, the emphasis will be on the size of the anticipated Clinton victory. For if he wins by more than 8 or 10 points, many political experts believe his coattails will be long enough to return control of the House, if not the Senate, to the Democrats. That, in the end, may be the key question to be decided on election day, Nov. 5. While legislative races often hinge on local issues and personalities, the aggregate results help determine the national agenda.

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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