THE presidential debate Sunday night - in candidate performance and questioning - was the best such exchange in the television era. Democrat Michael Dukakis was the more focused, the more collected: If this were a collegiate debate tourney instead of an election he would have been, by a small but discernible margin, the winner.
Mr. Dukakis gained, as challengers do, by being seen in the same frame as his Republican rival. But Mr. Bush did well, too. Certainly by the first-debate performance standards of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, Bush more than held his own.
Likewise, Dukakis did better than Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter. Myth plays havoc with memory in a comparison with John Kennedy. But the governor presented thought-out positions on both foreign and domestic policy issues.
And the questions, apart from the opening lob to Bush on drugs and the American character, were the best we've heard. This was crucial, since both candidates have withdrawn from direct contact interrogation from the press in favor of long-distance photo-ops and media control.
Another plus: Putting the candidates together on stage may be the only way to lift this campaign away from the broken-record charges that have made it so dreadful to date - the card-carrying liberal/pledge-of-allegiance business from Bush, the Iran-contra/Noriega-drug-criminal charges from Dukakis. Dukakis confronted Bush, correctly, for impugning his patriotism. Bush, though still not acknowledging responsibility for the grave foreign policy errors in the Middle East and Central America, argued, fairly enough, that the larger Reagan record and its successes should be kept in mind.
Maybe now the campaign can be wrested from the past. It sounds silly for Bush to pretend he is running against Mr. Carter or Mr. Mondale with references to ``malaise.'' And if Dukakis continues to harp on the Iran-contra theme without clearly picturing his own foreign policy direction, his campaign will pay a price.
Here is the hard reading in all this: George Bush had a comfortable lead of eight or nine points, in most polls, going into the debate. This is on the edge of a victory of landslide proportions - with 10 points the textbook landslide margin, accentuated by the winner-take-all electoral college system. We'll see if Dukakis made up much ground in debate No. 1.
The debate pointed up why many Americans are having a hard time with this election. At heart is the role of government. The Republican less-is-more philosophy of the past eight years has cut against those for whom life is tough enough already - the uninsured, the homeless, young parents desperate for child care. But when Dukakis talks about federal programs to meet these needs, the public questions the cost, the hit-and-miss record of government bureaucracy - the basic efficacy of such programs.
And neither candidate has yet been forced to say what the federal budget deficit and the vagaries of Congress will do to his defense, economic, and foreign policy proposals. On to debate No. 2.