The US Presidential Elections: 'Wishy-washy' Bush loses again

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON strolled around the audience like a chat-show host, spraying out facts and three-point proposals in a soothing stream. President George Bush, sometimes subdued, sometimes eloquent, kept looking distractedly at his watch, like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Ross Perot, a likeable figure in an ill-fitting suit, sounded as if he was auditioning for music hall, not the White House.

The second presidential television debate - the first in a chat-show format, with questions from an audience of uncommitted voters - was a triumph for Governor Clinton, by no means a disaster for President Bush and a come-uppance for Mr Perot. An instant CBS poll gave the day overwhelmingly to Mr Clinton, who impressed 54 per cent of viewers. Mr Bush was preferred by 25 per cent and Mr Perot by 20 per cent.

Although debates traditionally do not decide US elections, this may have been a pivotal night for the Democratic challenger. With just over two weeks to election day, with his double-digit lead shrinking in some polls, steady in others, Governor Clinton proved best able to slake the voter's thirst for a detailed potion for their anxieties. Although mostly regurgitating chunks of campaign speeches, he came over as smarmy at times, but also gentle, likeable and precise.

With only one debate left, in East Lansing, Michigan, on Monday, Mr Bush failed to make the kind of sustained assault on Governor Clinton's ideas or character which his campaign had promised. The President's handlers' strategy was ruined by the format. By direct command of the studio audience of 209 undecided Virginian voters, the candidates were forced to avoid the kind of personal attacks which disfigured - but also enlivened - the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday.

Instant polls notwithstanding, the biggest anti-climax of the night was Mr Perot. After weeks of claiming to be the man sent by the 'real people of America' to address genuine issues facing the nation, Mr Perot had little to offer an audience of ordinary voters wanting substantial answers to precise questions on the economy, health, education and crime. The Texan billionaire's caustic, anti-political humour carried the day in the first debate on Sunday. In Richmond on Thursday night, it was like listening to the same comedy routine two nights in a row.

But the longer-term loser was doubtless Mr Bush, who gave a competent performance, but lacked Mr Clinton's energy and stage-sense. Where the Democratic challenger strolled forward, microphone in hand, to look each questioner in the eye, the President stood awkwardly against one of the three bar-stools (borrowed from a nearby pub) and gave plausible but rambling and low-key answers.

The pivotal moment in the debate, and maybe the campaign, was a deceptively simple question from a young woman who wanted to know how the federal budget deficit, and the national debt, had 'personally affected each of your lives?' Mr Perot boasted that he had abandoned his private billionaire's life - 'a lot more fun than politics' - to come to the rescue of the American people. President Bush mumbled something about interest rates and said he did not understand the question. Pressed to be more specific, the President said that he had recently read a bulletin board at a black church in Washington 'about the difficulties that families are having to make ends meet . . . I mean, you've got to care.'

Meanwhile, Governor Clinton was twisting on his bar-stool like the clever boy in class who knows the real answer. He strolled forward and addressed the questioner in his most convincing persona: the passionate and caring policy nerd. As governor of a small state for 12 years, Washington had ordered him to 'do more things and given us less money to do it with . . . In my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it.' He went on to say that the real problem was not the budget deficit, but the deficit in public and private investment.

Marissa Hall, who asked the original question, said afterwards that Mr Clinton did a 'pretty good job' in answering it. She said the President's reply was 'wishy- washy'.

Mr Bush's best moment may have been his closing statement. He asked viewers to consider, if an international or domestic crisis broke out in the next five minutes, which of the candidates would they choose to handle it. Which had the 'perseverance, the character, the integrity, the maturity to get the job done?' Questioned afterwards, members of the studio audience said it was an effective comment by the President. But several pointed out that many Americans believe that there is already a domestic crisis in the US, and the President has yet to grasp the fact.

Trade deficit soars, page 15