Winston-Salem, N.C. — George Bush and Michael Dukakis both failed to win gold medals in their first, very feisty presidential debate. Experts say the war of words before an estimated 100 million TV viewers will have a mixed effect on the campaign in coming days. They predict it will:
Tighten the race. Just by appearing on the platform with Vice-President Bush, Governor Dukakis is helped.
Harden support. Until now, millions of voters were only ``soft'' supporters of the two candidates. Many will now firm up their views.
Change the focus. Bush has dominated the race to date with ideological charges against Dukakis on issues like prison furloughs. The governor got new attention in the debate for his own ideas, such as business-backed health care.
Voter samplings show the public almost evenly divided on the debate. Two media surveys showed Dukakis a slight winner, but other studies, such as one by the University of North Carolina, gave Bush a tiny edge.
The experts were as divided as the public.
Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann says Dukakis won by showing he is a mainstream Democrat with specific programs for the future.
Political analyst David Chagall countered that Dukakis was ``too smooth,'' with answers that seemed ``too pat,'' and that his style was ``cold and mechanistic.''
And scholar Stephen Hess said the debate was so boring that probably ``great gobs of people had tuned into something else by the time it was half over.''
Both candidates avoided committing a huge mistake, which was what they feared most. But neither was able to score consistently against the other.
Each followed carefully crafted scripts during the 90-minute face-off.
Bush clearly had decided that his best line of attack was to depict Dukakis as a Boston liberal who is out of touch with middle America. The vice-president hit Dukakis repeatedly, asking the TV audience: ``Do we want the country to go that far left? He [Dukakis] is out there, out of the mainstream.''
The governor countered that Bush was a man without new ideas or programs to solve the nation's problems or to carry the country into the future.
Dukakis particularly emphasized his proposal that would require businesses to provide health care to their employees. The program, at a cost of about $40 billion, would bring coverage to most of the 37 million Americans now uninsured.
Dr. Mann says Dukakis was most effective when he steered the debate into a discussion of his proposals.
``He transferred the debate from ideology to questions about what government should do. When the debate is on specific programs, Democrats win,'' he says. ``But when it's on symbolic issues, like the pledge of allegiance and furloughs, Democrats lose.''
Dukakis talked 90 percent of the time about specific programs, Mann says.
Susan Estrich, the Dukakis campaign manager, emphasized the same point:
``What came out ... was that Bush has no new proposals, no new solutions,'' she claims. ``Mr. Bush is satisfied to stay as things are and hope for the best. That isn't Michael Dukakis's idea of leadership.''
But Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager, counters that the only voters Dukakis impressed were liberals.
``Dukakis scored a lot of points with people that like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and points with people who like the criminal furlough system, big taxes, and big spending,'' Mr. Atwater charges. ``He did a good job of reinforcing the fact that he's a ... mid-'60s, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern-type liberal.''
John White, a former Democratic national chairman and a supporter of Jesse Jackson, says the results were less decisive than either side hoped.
Down in Texas, where Mr. White lives, ``this won't change the lead,'' he says. At the moment, Bush is about 10 points out in front there. Says White:
``The race is at the point where Bush did not have to win this debate. He had to look OK. But Dukakis had to look steady and strong, and I think he did. The race is still out there to be won'' by either side.
These presidential debates are often difficult for experts to analyze quickly. The impact sometimes takes days to percolate through the electorate.
One reason for the uncertainty is that voters often make their choice for the presidency on a very personal basis - the warmth of the candidates, for example, or a sense of strength that they manifest.
White said he worries somewhat that fellow Democrat Dukakis sometimes ``doesn't laugh, doesn't make enough mistakes'' on television.
``Sometimes you can be too good, too smooth,'' White observes.