Washington — The debate may have been a draw in the eyes of many viewers and experts, but with a group of undecided voters interviewed afterward, George Bush may still be the winner. Although these voters say they learned more about Gov. Michael Dukakis from the exchange, it wasn't all good.
As for the criticisms leveled at Vice-President Bush by his skillful opponent, most were old news to these voters, they say, and didn't alter their thinking.
The people interviewed by phone are residents of Norristown, Pa., and Warren, Mich. These are largely middle-class communities that pollsters have identified as possible bellwethers for the voting patterns of ``swing'' voters this year.
Only one of the undecided voters contacted was moved by the debate to make a decision. The rest remained on the fence, although a few are now leaning in new directions. In general, none were terribly impressed with the debate or the lessons they learned from it about each candidate.
``Maybe Bush is not as good a debater,'' says Robert McCall of Norristown, Pa., ``but I think he is a better person. This convinced me that I should vote for Bush.'' Mr. McCall considers himself an independent.
McCall wonders where the money is going to come from for all of Mr. Dukakis's programs. ``It's going to come from taxpayers' pockets,'' he says in answer to his own question.
For Ilona Meers, a secretary in Norristown, the debate prompted her to lean away from Mr. Bush and toward Governor Dukakis. Mrs. Meers is a Democrat.
``I guess I'm leaning a little more toward Dukakis because he is trying to come up with some sort of national health policy,'' she says. ``People really need it.''
Even though this one issue is very important to her, she calls the debate ``a close call'' and still says she has a lot of reading to do to make up her mind. ``I don't think either came out looking a lot stronger.''
Laurie Fisher, a teacher in Norristown, says she thinks Bush has a lot of ``skeletons'' in his closet stemming from his involvement with Panamanian leader and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and the Iran-contra affair. Before the debate she was leaning toward Mr. Dukakis because of the Bush ``skeletons'' and because she preferred his social agenda, especially on the environment.
Yet Mrs. Fisher, an independent, calls the election ``horrible'' because of the way she must agonize over her choice. She hasn't made any final decision but is heavily swayed by concerns over world affairs. ``Bush was making a lot of sense on those issues,'' she says, so ``now I'm moving toward Bush.''
Yvette Orlando, a high school treasurer in Warren, Mich., says she wasn't impressed or swayed one bit by the debate. ``I just feel it's all a lot of PR [public relations] and a lot of glitzy showbiz stuff,'' she says. They both came off looking all right in her mind, but the independent is leaning toward Bush.
Mrs. Dombchewsky is a homemaker in Norristown. A registered Democrat, she was leaning toward Dukakis before the debate. ``As I started hearing more details about Dukakis, I shifted over,'' she now says. ``Bush scored with me on the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] issue. I didn't realize Dukakis was that liberal.''
She wants to hear more about Bush's domestic agenda, and she was disappointed in his response to the abortion question. ``He should have a clear and concise position on that,'' she says. Most important, though, ``Reagan has put the country on good economic footing and I want to see that continued.''
Marcia Tye, a homemaker in Warren, is an independent who expressed no preference before the debate. She voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and for Walter Mondale in 1984, but now leans toward Bush because ``Dukakis is too liberal.'' She thinks the problems of the homeless and of available housing are exaggerated. She saw Dukakis as being less prepared and a ``little anxious and nervous.''
As for Mr. Bush, ``he is older, and sometimes he can't recall as quickly.'' That's OK though, she says, because ``aides will remind him. A president doesn't stand alone you know.''
Echoing a sentiment shared by a lot of those interviewed, Mrs. Dombchewsky asks, ``Is it too late to get a third candidate up there?''