Candidates' TV performance lacks luster. Bush still leads GOP; star quality continues to elude Democrats
Washington — It was a good opening night for the Republicans, but the Democrats need to work on their performance. That was the view of several political experts, who gave mixed reviews to the first nationally televised debate of the 1988 presidential campaign.
The debate, broadcast on NBC-TV from the Kennedy Center, was the first in history to feature all the candidates of both major parties on the same stage. During the two-hour fray, the political fireworks were both interparty and intra-party.
But analyst William Schneider says the event ``didn't really change anything'' - which leaves the GOP far out front in the presidential sweepstakes.
Stephen Hess, an expert at the Brookings Institution, says ``the Democrats, as a group, didn't look particularly presidential.''
David Chagall, a political specialist in Los Angeles, says the Democrats ``looked like the outs. They had no new ideas, no forceful presentations.''
The debate, watched by 11 million to 13 million people, was the first chance the two parties had to roll out their best performers before a nationwide audience.
Experts were particularly interested to see whether the Democrats could demonstrate star quality in their bid to oust the GOP, which has held the White House for most of the last 20 years.
Some political veterans, such as writer David Broder of the Washington Post, were upbeat about the Democratic showing. Mr. Broder concluded that the Democrats had debunked the notion that there is a ``stature gap'' between the two fields. But his view appeared to be in the minority.
Mr. Schneider, himself a Democrat, suggested that ``none of the Democrats looked as if he had the stature'' needed for the campaign. Only Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts showed that he occasionally could be ``above the fray,'' Schneider said.
When they disagreed on issues, the Democrats sometimes ``squabbled like children over who voted for what,'' Schneider added.
Mr. Hess called the Democratic performance ``worrisome.'' He said: ``The Democrats now have had six to eight months to put their show on the road. This was Broadway last night, their first network performance ... and none of them had the quality. They talked a lot about leadership, but like doing a novel, you don't talk about it, you write it.''
While the Democrats drew wide criticism, the Republican challengers also failed to do much to shake the strong lead for the nomination now held by Vice-President George Bush.
Using his White House connections, Mr. Bush defended his front-runner's position by supporting President Reagan at every possible turn.
Once again, only Bush among the Republicans unreservedly supported the INF treaty that will be signed next week by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush also backed up the White House position on AIDS, when he noted spending on AIDS research is greater than that for other diseases. And he made reassuring gestures to the elderly on social security and to fundamentalists worried about family values.
Schneider and other experts say the GOP race is a waiting game - everyone is waiting for Bush to stumble. Unless he does, he remains the presumptive heir.
Democrats taking part in the debate were, besides Governor Dukakis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Paul Simon, Rep. Richard Gephardt, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. Republicans besides Bush were Sen. Robert Dole, Rep. Jack Kemp, former Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former Gen. Alexander Haig, and Pat Robertson.
Chagall offered these points on some of candidates:
Michael Dukakis. Wisely attacked Republicans, but too soft in his treatment of fellow Democrats, which hurt his leadership image.
Jesse Jackson. Relied on populist appeals, anti-big-business. But his direct appeal to homosexuals risked the charge that he is a candidate of special interests.
Paul Simon. Front-runner in Iowa, but his performance was judged too grim, his questions to other candidates too self-serving.
Bruce Babbitt. Made effective points during the debate, but remains at the back of the pack.
George Bush. Not as good as his October performance in Houston against other GOP candidates, but he held his own.
Robert Dole. Still gives the impression of being a Washington insider. Too cautious.
Jack Kemp. Helped himself with conservatives by supporting pardon for Oliver North and John Poindexter, if they are charged.