Good Job, Candidates

GEORGE BUSH, it must be said, is a fighter. He has delivered some of his grittiest political performances in dark hours, his dreams slipping away. This was true in the New Hampshire primary in 1988, a week after an upset in Iowa put his presidential quest on the ropes; it was true in his speech at the Republican convention that year, when Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by 17 points.

The president showed toughness and resiliency again Monday evening in the final debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. It's another bleak hour for Bush: Opinion polls indicate that in two weeks his hopes for a second term may be crushed. Yet Mr. Bush was firmer, more focused, and more disciplined in delivering his message than at any other time during the '92 campaign.

The president's attacks on what Bush characterized as Mr. Clinton's "waffling," his gubernatorial record in Arkansas, and his plans for "trickle-down government" were pointed but within fair political discourse. Wisely, Bush largely stayed away from assailing Clinton on more personal issues like his draft record. Bush also defended his own performance in office more confidently than he has before.

If we are seeing George Bush's last hurrah in politics, he can hold his head up.

Bush's challengers didn't simply stand by and marvel at the president's resurgence, however. Both Clinton and Mr. Perot were effective in pursuing their debate strategies. With his comfortable lead in the polls, Clinton could afford to be somewhat cautious and restrained. He wasn't passive, though: He continued to promote his economic program persuasively, he defended his performance as governor, and he crisply banged the "waffling" charge back at Bush. Fair-minded critics will acknowledge that Clinton " looks presidential."

Perot continued his feisty, quipping effort to convince voters that, with his can-do spirit, he alone can balance the federal budget. And in a departure from his previous nice-guy tactics, Perot had steely criticism for Bush's policy toward Iraq that, the Texan said, emboldened Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait.

After four debates in nine intense days, has the shape of the '92 campaign changed? Perhaps some undecided voters have made up their minds as a result of the encounters. Most committed voters probably just had their decisions reinforced. Whether or not measurable effects can be traced to the debates, however, they contributed to American democracy by strengthening the link between the candidates and the public and by helping to energize voters.

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