Bush Scores A Warm Win

The debate in Los Angeles illuminates the power of personality as well as Dukakis' real Frostbelt problem

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Bush, whose apparent nervousness in the initial debate led to long interludes of incoherence, was as relaxed and confident in Los Angeles as he has ever been on a national stage. His efforts at humor seemed mostly spontaneous rather than the spoon-fed one-liners of backstage handlers. Asked to find something to praise about his Democratic rival, Bush flashed a broad grin and said, "Listen, you're stealing my close. I had something very nice to say in that." This easy-listening tone was established early in the debate, when the Vice President interrupted moderator Shaw, who was trying to pose a hypothetical question about Dan Quayle's becoming President following Bush's death. "Bernie!" Bush interjected at just the right moment, conveying with that single word the natural human reluctance to dwell on one's own mortality.

For issue-oriented voters, it may be unfortunate that the debate seemed to turn on the 1988 versions of Reagan's famous "there you go again" quip. But here the blame rests equally with both candidates, who consciously refrained from raising new issues and arguments before the more than 62 million TV viewers. Despite a barrage of questions on the deficit, Bush and Dukakis clung to the fig leaf provided by their dubious budget nostrums. The Vice President escaped serious challenge on his implausible insistence that his so-called flexible freeze of 4% budget growth can accommodate new domestic proposals like $1,000 child-care grants, special-interest tax cuts and muscular military spending. Dukakis, however, was hammered as he repeated his lame argument from the primaries that up to $100 billion can be recovered by vigorous enforcement of existing tax laws. Challenged as to what taxes he would raise as a last resort, Dukakis asked haplessly, "May I disagree with the premise of your question?"

Deprived of realistic road maps as to how either candidate would behave in the White House, voters were almost forced to depend on factors of character and personality to predict presidential performance. As they have through much of the campaign, both Bush and Dukakis peppered the debate with carefully chosen code words designed to camouflage their vulnerabilities. Bush, whose privileged background is alien to the life experience of most Americans, kept harping on the word values as he proclaimed that he was in tune with "the heartbeat of the country." For Dukakis, who often seems closer in spirit to Roger Rabbit than Rambo, his mantra was the adjective tough. Whether it was tackling the "tough choices" on domestic spending or the "tough and difficult decisions" on Pentagon weapons, Dukakis used the word to portray himself as possessing the macho fiber to sit in the Oval Office.

Why did Dukakis, trailing in the polls, resist aggressively challenging Bush in the final debate? The clearest explanation for this passivity came from Kitty Dukakis, who said Friday, "It's hard to be aggressive and warm at the same time. Michael was warmer." Maybe so, but at this rate, it may take until springtime to raise Dukakis to room temperature.

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