Debate marks end of dream for Dole

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The Independent Online
Bob Dole gave it everything. He bitingly assailed "the almost daily scandals" of the Clinton administration. He waxed evangelical over his tax-cut plan. He cracked some good one-liners, and generally seemed at least as presidential as his opponent. In short, as even the White House officials conceded, he did well. Almost certainly, though, it was not well enough.

By the standards of the genre, the second and last presidential debate of 1996 here on Wednesday evening was one of the better ones. In the city where a hugely successful convention anointed him nominee in August, Mr Dole gave an immeasurably better performance than in his first confrontation with Mr Clinton 10 days ago in Hartford, Connecticut.

But with the economy rolling along, and the public more optimistic than for many years, the Republican challenger faced a daunting task: showing his countrymen a convincing reason why, at a time of rising prosperity and when no foreign crisis looms, they should change their leader.

Hence his attacks on the ethics of Bill Clinton's White House, and, by implication, on the President's personal character. Twice, and inside the first few minutes, Mr Dole reminded us he served in the military and has seen combat, while Mr Clinton had avoided both. The President had "violated the public trust", Mr Dole charged, citing the White House's improper collection of FBI background files on opponents, and the controversy over an Indonesian business group's $450,000 contributions to Democratic Party coffers.

But for all the glowing praise afterwards from his supporters, and the high marks accorded Mr Dole by political pundits, snap polls by the ABC and CBS networks suggested his efforts were of little help. According to both, viewers by a two-to-one margin felt Mr Clinton had "won" the 90-minute debate - even though he spent much of it on the defensive, content to parry Mr Dole's thrusts on the economy, and ignoring his broadsides on the ethics front.

Even more pertinently, 96 per cent of those polled by CBS said the debate had not changed their minds. If so, the President's substantial lead is unlikely to vanish in the 18 remaining days of the campaign. But the debate on the campus of San Diego University will achieve its little niche in history - as the place where Bill Clinton held the last big debate of his political career, and where Bob Dole's chances of achieving his decades- old ambition of the White House died.

At one point, Mr Dole proposed a third debate focusing on the economy, hinting it might include the Reform Party candidate, billionaire businessman Ross Perot, whom Mr Dole fought tooth and nail to keep out of scheduled debates. But White House officials indicated they would reject the offer.

On paper, the "town-hall" format was tailor-made for the President, allowing him to interact with the audience of 113 undecided voters on the stage of the university's Shiley Theater, to empathize with them and "feel their pain" in tried Clinton fashion. Mr Dole also displayed an unaccustomed personal touch.

Throughout, however, Mr Clinton stuck to his tactic of refusing to rise to Mr Dole's taunts on the ethics issue - even if on occasion he visibly had to bite back his anger. "No personal attack ever created a job, or educated a child; no insult ever helped an elderly person, or cleaned up a toxic-waste dump" was the closest he came to assailing his challenger.

As revealing as the answers were the questions. Of the 20 posed, only one raised foreign policy. Most involved domestic issues, notably education, the future of the financially pressed Medicare and Medicaid programmes and of social security, and affirmative action.

Mr Dole was asked about his ill-judged comment in the summer that nicotine might not be addictive, and whether at 73, he might be too old to be President. To which Mr Clinton delivered one of his most effective responses: "Mr Dole is not too old to be President, it's the age of his ideas that concerns me."