In a 90-minute stream of taunts, allegations and counter-allegations between the Republican and Democratic contestants, Dan Quayle and Al Gore, the only relief came from Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Bond Stockdale (retd). His presence - soothing but politically disastrous - was all that stopped the debate from degenerating entirely.
The debate's ferocity, fired by a frenzied show of aggression by Mr Quayle, was the stormiest encounter of the 1992 race so far. All eyes will be on the second presidential debate, in Richmond, Virginia, this evening, to see whether that is similarly bloody. Last Sunday's presidential face-off, the first of three, was a dully polite affair.
According to the instant polls, the prize for best performance went to Mr Gore, by 50 per cent to 32 per cent for Mr Quayle in an NBC survey. The unhappy hero of the night, though, was Admiral Stockdale, who bravely, though unwisely, began his opening remarks with 'Who am I? What am I doing here?', and later had trouble with the volume control on his hearing aid.
At times it was almost too painful to watch. Cruelly miscast, the 68-year-old Vietnam War hero seemed utterly overwhelmed, fumbling for coherent sentences, let alone a convincing political vision. He will have won the sympathy vote, but may have wiped out the boost Mr Perot earned himself with his own humorous, folksy performance last Sunday.
Still, as a counterpoint to the virtual food fight going on between the other two candidates, the admiral had his moments. He once interrupted the two-way diatribe, saying it illustrated to Americans 'why this nation is in gridlock', and, on abortion rights, said forthrightly that 'what a woman does with her own body is her business'. The rest of the time, though, he looked like an old Labrador lost in the wrong home and unable to find the way out.
Mr Quayle, by contrast, knew why he was there - to stir more doubts about Mr Gore's senior partner, Bill Clinton. Returning repeatedly to the theme that the Arkansas Governor has changed positions and lied on issues, he concluded: 'You need a president you can trust. Can you really trust Bill Clinton? Do you really believe Bill Clinton will tell the truth?' He defined as 'pulling a Clinton' the Governor's alleged ability to shift sides at will on policy.
In perhaps his most potent line of attack, the Vice-President challenged Mr Gore to explain Mr Clinton's record on the Gulf war, where, at the war's outbreak, he admitted that while he was personally against it, he would have voted with the majority in Congress. It was a challenge that Mr Gore conspicuously failed to answer.
But for every punch Mr Quayle landed, Senator Gore returned at least two. At the Democratic debate-watch party at the Atlanta Sheraton, supporters roared their approval at his opening line - that if Mr Quayle desisted from comparing George Bush to Harry Truman, he would not compare the Vice-President to Jack Kennedy - an allusion to the humiliating 'you're-no-Jack-Kennedy' line delivered to Mr Quayle by Lloyd Bentsen in their 1988 debate.
Mr Gore appeared to score especially well in defending the pro- choice position on abortion. He taunted Mr Quayle on his reported ambivalence towards the official Republican stance that would ban all abortions. 'Repeat after me, Dan,' he challenged repeatedly, 'I support the right of a woman to choose.'
Although Mr Gore at times seemed to slip into a pre-programmed mode, almost delivering mini party political broadcasts to the camera, he at least gave the impression of composure, in contrast to the almost frothing excitement of Mr Quayle.
The latter's performance may have been considerably better than most had expected, but it prompted comments such as this in the Washington Post: 'Mr Quayle lobbed the most zingers, and probably hit the most targets. But there was the sense, as there always is whenever Quayle tries to talk tough, of a poodle playing pit bull.'
Business warms to Clinton, page 29
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content