The US Presidential Elections: Bush feels the ground shift beneath him: Rupert Cornwell, in Washington, on how the candidates fared in the first TV debate. Below, what they said in detail

IT WAS, incontrovertibly, Ross Perot's finest hour and a half for a very long time. But while the perky, fast-talking little Texan might have won the war of the one-liners, the abiding impression of the showdown-that-wasn't in St Louis is another: 11 October may go down as the day that George Bush finally surrendered the US Presidency.

That of course was not the line being peddled to anyone who cared to listen by the Bush camp afterwards. 'Slick Willie' had been nailed to the mast of his own deceptions and the Republican economic plan had conclusively proved its superority, insisted the 'spinners' and 'senior spinners' (that is how campaign officials were officially described in the White House schedule).

But the most telling moment came afterwards. Did he think he had won, someone asked the President. George Bush, usually indomitably cheerful and chatty, if notoriously weak on his syntax, this time could do no more than shrug. In this all-important first presidential debate, he knew he had to win big. And that, by any yardstick, Mr Bush failed to do.

The debate marathon of course has barely begun. Tonight Al Gore and Dan Quayle go head to head in Atlanta. On Thursday in Richmond, and then one last time in Michigan next Monday, the presidential contenders will be squaring up anew. But the 'October Surprise' of which Republicans dream looks more remote by the day. A new state-by-state survey yesterday showed Mr Bush in unchallenged command only in Utah and Nebraska. Even Republican bulwarks like Florida and Texas are toss-ups in 1992.

Not that Bill Clinton delivered a knock-out punch on Sunday. Indeed, the very term 'debate' is a misnomer for what actually took place. Under the wary format of moderator and journalist panel, the direct exchanges were few and far between. At no point could the candidates question one another directly: what barbs there were came in one- or two-minute answers and rebuttals. By the roughhouse standards of Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons it was pretty tame stuff.

But Mr Clinton's requirements were comparatively modest. All he had to do was avoid a real howler, and show he was up to the job. A little aggression from a man all smoothness and caution would not do any harm either - and that too the Democrat provided when he evoked George Bush's father to drive home his charge of McCarthyism in the President's hounding of his opposition to the Vietnam war. For the rest, it was the Clinton America has come to respect, if not yet love: a master of every brief whose competence could not be doubted, but inclined to cram five minutes' worth of facts into five seconds of speech. The irritating tics are still there too. Before each answer he would pause and flick his tongue over his lips like a lizard about to ensnare a fly.

Even so, he glowed with the invisible aura of a president-all-but-elect, and in his closing statement he sounded like one: 'I offer a new direction. Invest in American jobs, American education . . . bring this country together again. I want the future of this country to be as bright and brilliant as its past, and it can be if we have the courage to change.'

It was a peroration more than worthy of the much-derided 'Oxford debater'. Against it, George Bush's exhortations about trust and experience, his dwelling on his foreign policy achievements and his demand for 'four more years' to finish the job, all rang wan and hollow. The President was a man on the wrong side of history. Once again, he had nothing new to offer. And for a man running 10 to 15 points behind three weeks before election day, that was simply not good enough.

Even at this late hour, he seemed not to know his own mind. A few days earlier, he had publicly earmarked James Baker for a return to the State Department in a second Bush term. But on Sunday night the President abruptly changed tack; his Chief of Staff would stay on at the White House, in charge of domestic policy. Which is it to be? Thankfully Mr Baker, invisible these last six weeks, has at last resurfaced. All will be revealed, he told NBC, in a speech this week.

Which leaves Mr Perot. On Sunday he was trenchant, bristling and magnificent. If the applause and laughter meter and the instant polls are anything to go by, he was the winner. What might have happened, one wondered, had he not hauled up the white flag in July? 'Aren't you sick of being treated like an unprogrammed robot?' he asked at one point, and almost audibly an entire country said Amen.

Conceivably, he could yet upset the received wisdom of the race, taking enough protest votes from Mr Clinton to give Mr Bush an eleventh-hour chance. But there was precious sign of that yesterday. Despite his triumph on the podium, the Perot share in post-debate polls was no more than 14 per cent. According to CBS, Governor Clinton leads the President by 47 to 35, according to ABC by 46 to 31. This is the stuff of which landslides are made, and Sunday in St Louis has hardened the suspicion that in the end, a landslide it may well be.

PERSONALITIES

BUSH: I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organise demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil. How could you be commander-in-chief of the armed forces and have some kid say, when you have to make a tough decision, as I did in Panama or in Kuwait, and then have some kid jump up and say: 'Well, I'm not going to go. The commander-in-chief was organising demonstrations half way around the world during another era.'

CLINTON: I represent real hope for change, a departure from trickle-down economics, a departure from tax-and-spend economics to invest and grow . . . When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. George Bush's father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy . . . I was opposed to the war, but I love my country.

PEROT: I don't have any experience in running up a dollars 4tr (pounds 2.3tr) debt. I don't have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialised world, the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialised world. But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done.

JOBS

BUSH: What I'm going to do is say to Jim Baker; You do in domestic affairs what you've done in foreign affairs, be the economic co-ordinator of all the domestic side of the House.

I believe it'll work because we've got the plans. I've put ours together in something called the agenda for American renewal, and it makes sense, it's sensible, it creates jobs, it gets to the base of the kind of jobs we need.

CLINTON: This country desperately needs a jobs programme, and my first priority would be to pass a jobs programme, to introduce it on the first day I was inaugurated. I would meet with the leaders of the Congress, with all the newly elected members of the Congress and as many others with whom I could meet between the time of the election and the inauguration. Then we would present a plan to control health care costs - until we control health care costs, we're not going to control the deficit.

PEROT: We won't even wait till inauguration. We will start putting together teams to take all the plans that exist and do something with them. There are great plans lying all over Washington nobody ever executes. It's like having a blueprint for a house you never build. Show the American people by Christmas the first cut at these plans. By the time Congress comes into session, have those plans ready to go in front of Congress.

DEBT AND TAXES

BUSH: In spite of the economic problems, we're the most respected economy around the world. Many would trade for it. We've been caught up in a global slowdown. We can do much, much better, but we ought not to try to convince the American people that America is a country that is coming apart at the seams. I've already put forward things that'll get this country working fast - investment tax allowance, capital gains reduction, more on research and development, tax credit for first-time home buyers.

PEROT: We have so mismanaged our country over the years, and it is now time to pay the fiddler. And if we don't, we will be spending our children's money. We have spent dollars 4tr worth. We've got to clean this mess up, leave this country in good shape, and pass on the American dream to our young people. We've got to collect the taxes to do it.

CLINTON: I think it's important to point out we really have two deficits in America, not one. We have a budget deficit in the federal government, but we also have an investment, a jobs, an income deficit. People are working harder for less money than they were making 10 years ago . . . The problem I have with the Perot prescription is that almost all economists who've looked at it say that if you cut the deficit this much this quick it will increase unemployment, slowing down the economy.

DEFENCE

PEROT: If I'm poor and you're rich, and I can get you to defend me, that's good. But when the tables get turned, I ought to do my share. We spend about dollars 300bn a year on defence, the Japanese spend around dollars 30bn in Asia, the Germans spend around dollars 30bn in Europe. We've got to have the money to be able to pay for defence. And we've got to manufacture here. We've got to help Russia succeed in its revolution, and all of its republics. We have written agreements and we have some missiles that have been destroyed, but we have a huge number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that are still in place in Russia. The fact that you have an agreement is one thing. Till they're destroyed, some crazy person can either sell them or use them.

CLINTON: The world is still a dangerous and uncertain place. We need a new military and a new national security policy equal to the challenges of the post-Cold War era, a smaller permanent military force, but one that is more mobile, well-trained with high-technology equipment.

BUSH: I will accept and have accepted the recommendations of two proven leaders, General Colin Powell and Secretary Dick Cheney. They feel that the levels we're operating at and the reductions that I have proposed are proper. I do not think we should go back to the isolation days. We are the sole remaining superpower.

EUROPE

CLINTON: The Carlucci report said 100,000 or slightly fewer US troops would be enough in Europe. I simply don't believe we can afford nor do we need to keep 150,000 troops in Europe given how much the Red Army has been cut, and given the arms control agreement concluded between Mr Bush and Mr Yeltsin.

BUSH: I think it is important that the United States stay in Europe and continues to guarantee the peace. We simply cannot pull back. If you look at the cost of not keeping the peace in Europe, it would be exorbitant. We have reduced the number of troops that are deployed and going to be deployed. I have cut defence spending. And the reason we could do that is because of our fantastic success in winning the Cold War. Today you've got problems in Europe, still bubbling along even though Europe's gone democracy's route. But we are there, and I think this insurance policy is necessary.

PEROT: The EC is in a position to pay a lot more than they have in the past. I agree with the President: when they couldn't, we should have; now that they can, they should. We seem to have a desire to try to stay over there and control it. They don't want us to control it, very candidly. So it is very important for us to let them assume more and more of the burden and for us to bring that money back here and rebuild our infrastructure.

PEACE-KEEPING

BUSH: I am not going to commit US forces until I know what the mission is, till the military tell me that it can be completed, until I know how they can come out. Ancient ethnic rivalries aren't going to be solved by sending in the 82nd Airborne. American warplanes are carrying relief goods to Sarajevo and it's America that's in the lead and helping with humanitarian relief for Somalia. But when you've got to put somebody else's son or daughter into war, I think you've got to be a little bit careful.

CLINTON: I agree that we cannot commit ground forces to become involved in the quagmire of Bosnia, or in the tribal wars of Somalia. I think he (Bush)should stiffen the embargo on the Belgrade government and I think we have to consider whether or not we should lift the arms embargo now on the Bosnians since they are in no way in a fair fight with a heavily armed opponent bent on ethnic cleansing.

PEROT: If we learned anything in Vietnam it is that you first commit this nation before you commit the troops to the battlefield. Bosnia is a primary concern to the European Community. Certainly we care about the people, we care about the children, we care about the tragedy. But it is inappropriate for us just because there's a problem around the world to take the sons and daughters of working people and get them torn to pieces.

CHINA

BUSH: Communist China has made progress on human rights issues, although not enough. But humiliating them is not the way you make the kind of progress we are getting. Governor Clinton's philosphy is isolate them. You isolate China and turn them inward, and then we've made a tremendous mistake. I'm not going to do it.

CLINTON: I would be firm. I would say if you want to continue most-favoured-nation status for your government-owned industries as well as your private ones, observe human rights in the future, open your society, recognise the legitimacy of those kids who were carrying the Statue of Liberty in the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. Mr Bush sent a delegation of top US officials in secret to toast the Chinese leaders and basically tell them not to worry about that.

PEROT: China is ruled by some very elderly leaders who will not be around too much longer. Capitalism is growing and thriving across big portions of China, and Asia will be America's largest trading partner. We have a delicate, tight-wire walk that we must go through to make sure that we do not cozy up to tyrants, to make sure that they don't get the impression that they can suppress their people. But time is our friend there, because their leaders will change in not too many years and their country is making great progress.

(Photographs omitted)

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