For 90 minutes in Hartford, Connecticut on Sunday evening, watched by the largest national television audience until election night on 5 November, the President and his Republican challenger set out their differences on issues ranging from foreign policy, crime and education to the economy and Whitewater. The tone was unfailingly civil. Far ahead in the polls, the President needed only to avoid disaster and easily did so.
Mr Dole, with a string of trademark sardonic one-liners, provided most of the humour. But twice he declined opportunities to wade in against Mr Clinton on the "character issue" - shorthand for broken election promises, a gamut of White House mini-scandals, Whitewater and his supposed personal peccadilloes - where the President is most vulnerable.
Afterwards, an array of instant polls, "debate-meters" and sundry other psephological devices wheeled out by the networks picked up scant change in the overall picture. In one, by CBS, 96 per cent claimed that what they had seen would make no difference to their vote. Asked to select a "winner" and a "loser", those questioned gave Mr Clinton victory by 15 or 20 points, about the same lead as he enjoys in most opinion polls.
But chinks of hope do remain for Mr Dole. One is that three out of four voters considered he had done "better than expected"; more encouraging still, perhaps, a quarter of the electorate still says it might change its mind. For Republicans this is proof that while the President's support might be broad, it is not deep.
Hoping to build on his debate showing, Mr Dole is stealing a leaf from the Clinton campaign book with his own two-day bus tour through the crucial swing- state of New Jersey, hammering Mr Clinton's failure to deliver the middle-class tax-cut he promised in 1992, and promoting his own 15- per-cent across-the-board reduction.
"Bob Dole keeps his word, Bob Dole keeps his word," he repeated, mantra- like, at Toms River, 60 miles south of New York City. Alongside him stood Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey's popular Republican Governor, whose tax cuts have made her an ideological postergirl of the party. Even so, Mr Dole is trails Mr Clinton by 15 points or more in New Jersey, one of a group of industrial states he virtually must carry if he is to win the White House.
Mr Clinton was holding rallies in Maine and New Hampshire, part of a north-east he seems set to sweep. If trends hold, Mr Dole will lose in every state between Canada and the Virginia border, representing 127 electoral- college votes of the 270 required to win. But, however daunting the mountain their candidate must climb, Republican spokesmen hailed Sunday as the dawn of a "new day", a sign that the dynamic of the race is about to change.
The debate's format of separate responses to a moderator - the much-respected but low-key Jim Lehrer of PBS - permitted no direct give-and-take between the candidates. But Mr Dole did go some way towards banishing the scowling, "mean" image which has dogged his career. And shaking loose his reputation as a wretched public speaker, he smiled constantly and told good jokes.
"I don't know if everyone's better off than four years ago," he remarked at one point, "but the President certainly is and so is Saddam Hussein." Then Mr Dole delivered a crack at liberal tax-and-spend Democrats. "Let me tax your memories," Mr Dole said he began a Senate- floor speech once - only for Senator Edward Kennedy to leap to his feet: "Why haven't we thought of that before?"
For the rest however, the two men mostly traded selective statistics to illustrate their points; Mr Clinton to buttress his claims that the economy was stronger than in decades, his opponent to claim that, despite the surge on Wall Street and the tumbling budget deficit, ordinary Americans were more fearful for their future than ever.
But for most analysts here, Mr Dole has yet to fulfil the central task of a challenger - of explaining why an incumbent who has made no egregious blunders should be ejected from office. Had he won the debate, he was asked afterwards. "No," came candidate Dole's typically laconic, self- deprecating reply, "I don't know. We showed up." Given the low expectations beforehand, just showing up may have been a feat. Whether it is enough to turn the tide, however, is another matter.Reuse content