Debate didn't sway many voters. People wary of too much rapid change, pollster adds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The first presidential debate caused barely a ripple of change in voter sentiment. Polltakers for both political parties say their surveys taken after the debate show no significant movement in voter preferences. That's good news for the campaign of Vice-President George Bush, but not for the Dukakis camp.

``If you look at the 25 to 32 national surveys that have been taken since the first of September, only two show Dukakis with [even] a very modest lead. The other 30 or 31 show George Bush holding anything from a 3- to an 11-point lead,'' says Richard Wirthlin, a GOP pollster.

What about the polls taken right after the debate?

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``It was a virtual wash in terms of [candidate] support,'' Mr. Wirthlin says. Privately, Democratic pollsters agree. Mr. Bush still enjoys the approximately five-point lead he had going into the debates, although that lead is considered very soft.

The perceived draw in last Sunday's debate and other equalizing factors in the race lead Wirthlin to predict ``a campaign that can best be described as trench warfare, [with] both candidates fighting along pretty well-determined lines. A battle of inches rather than miles.''

``As a result it's a battle for the marginal advantage,'' he continues. ``When that's the case, there is a tendency for both campaigns to put a premium on not making a big mistake, [and on] making small gains.''

Wirthlin explains that part of this low-risk strategy is to keep the candidate away from a ``free-flow exchange with the working media.'' Bush has severely curtailed unscripted press events.

Some surveys do show important changes taking place just below the surface, however. For the first time in this election, more Americans think the country is going in the ``right direction'' than think it has seriously gotten off on the ``wrong track.''

In mid-August GOP surveys showed 56 percent saying the country was going in the wrong direction and only 41 percent saying it was on the right course. Now the numbers show 49 percent think the direction is correct, while 43 percent are still unhappy. Wirthlin says the public is now looking at the future more optimistically than they have in eight years.

Wirthlin, referring to polling data and focus groups assembled by the GOP, sees the undecided vote beginning to firm up, even though the overall numbers themselves are not changing. He also sees Republican voters who were toying with a Dukakis vote during the summer now coming back to the conservative fold. His data show Bush getting 90 to 93 percent of the Republican vote and Dukakis pulling 81 to 82 percent of the Democratic vote.

About two weeks ago the Republicans saw an opening to turn the tables on Dukakis on the subject of change.

In their survey, the GOP asked voters, ``Which of the two parties is best described by the phrase, `Will make too many changes too quickly?''' Almost two out of three voters associated that phrase with the Democrats. Only one of three linked it to the GOP.

``That's where the attempt to radicalize Dukakis has its political cut,'' says Wirthlin. ``It is that he would induce change that would be disadvantageous or hurtful in the view of Americans.'' The Bush campaign will try to hammer that into voters' minds.

The vice-president still has some problems, Wirthlin says. The public does not see him as caring about people enough, and he has not been specific enough about his vision of the future.

``Bush's major task,'' he says, ``is to outline a credible program for the future. He's got the elements of it; he brought it together in part at the convention. But at this point ... he hasn't really solidified what lies behind the phrase, `We are the change.'''

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