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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Still, the Vice President's handlers had clearly expected a more adventurous foe. In his mock debates, Bush had been carefully prepared in case Dukakis challenged him to jettison the programmed format and instead debate man-to- man, addressing each other rather than responding to the panel. This rumored Dukakis gambit was dubbed a "Nashua," after the 1980 New Hampshire G.O.P. debate in which Reagan adroitly changed the ground rules on Bush after declaring, "I paid for this microphone." Had Dukakis tried this desperation ploy, Bush stood ready to exploit his most natural advantage: the 6-in. height + gap separating him and the Democratic nominee. Bush would demand that Dukakis come out from behind his height-adjusted podium as a condition for attempting any reprise of Lincoln-Douglas pyrotechnics.

Instead, Dukakis cleaved to the prearranged ground rules, even when Bush, in response to a question, uttered the fateful words, "I will not agree to another debate." The Vice President's unyielding position on a third installment of this prime-time grudge match makes strategic sense for a candidate who continues to hold a consistent lead in the polls. Even before Los Angeles, an aura of inevitability was beginning to envelop the Vice President. Already, the networks have unveiled their multicolored election- night maps to depict Bush's apparent lead in the Electoral College. As in 1980 and 1984, wide swatches of color cover most of the South and Rocky Mountain West, as the Vice President solidifies the Reagan-era Republican base. Last week's seemingly one-sided debate will only encourage the media's proclivity to pronounce the race all but over three weeks before the first votes are cast.

The challenge facing Dukakis is indeed tough. Campaigning in Sacramento the day after the debate, Dukakis declared wanly, "You know that this victory is out there to be won." The quiet crowd on the steps of the state capital barely stirred. "You know that," Dukakis repeated, almost as if he needed to convince himself.

But having squandered his last major opportunity in the debate, Dukakis is beginning to seem like a beleaguered contestant on that old-time game show, Beat the Clock. With three weeks to go, he now must depend on short bursts on the nightly news and in campaign spots to communicate a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Unless he does, the American people are likely to provide George Bush with four years in the White House as his reward for being the loyal heir to the Reagan era's legacy of peace and apparent prosperity.

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