Bentsen won veep slugfest on points. But Quayle held his own leaving Bush with slight edge in polls

Only one major event - the final presidential debate - now remains before George Bush and Michael Dukakis have their election-day showdown. Meanwhile, the fiery clash between the two candidates for the vice-presidency may turn out to be the most memorable battle of this long campaign for the White House.

According to the experts, the bottom line from Wednesday night's verbal brawl here in Omaha was: Dan Quayle survived. Lloyd Bentsen won.

The key question now is: Can Governor Dukakis find a way to exploit this victory in the remaining 32 days. Experts say both candidates for the No. 2 spot achieved their goals.

Mr. Quayle, under tremendous pressure to prove he had the stature for the White House, avoided major mistakes and went toe to toe with the far more experienced Mr. Bentsen for 90 minutes.

Even Tony Coehlo, the House Democratic whip, admits that Quayle ``succeeded'' in proving he could take the heat. Bentsen, hoping to goad Quayle into a major gaffe, scored point after point against the young senator, and came off clearly ahead with most voters, according to overnight opinion polls.

Bentsen also gained during a stinging exchange about John F. Kennedy - an attack that political scientist Larry Berg calls ``absolutely devastating.''

It happened when Quayle claimed: ``I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.''

Bentsen retorted: ``Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.''

Republican Sen. Alan Simpson calls Bentsen's comments ``harsh, nasty.'' He suggests they could backfire.

Democratic Party chairman Paul Kirk counters that the comment was ``right on the mark.'' Kennedy was a war hero, an author, and senator who had used his position to battle racketeers, Mr. Kirk argues.

Brookings scholar Stephen Hess, an expert on the Congress, says that ironically Quayle's comparison had a ring of truth. In the House, Kennedy was ``known as a playboy,'' Mr. Hess says, and in the Senate he was seen as ``a backbencher who spent most of his time running for the White House.'' Kennedy proved that some politicians grow in the job when they reach the White House, Mr. Hess observes.

Initial reactions around the country were twofold. ABC News ran a quick poll showing Bentsen on top by 2 to 1 with the public. USA Today, using an electronic ``debate meter'' to measure reaction among 100 selected voters, gave Bentsen better than a 3-to-1 edge.

But the ABC News survey also found that Bentsen's victory did virtually nothing to change the Bush-Dukakis race. The vice-president remains slightly ahead, as he has been for weeks.

Though Bentsen's performance is widely praised, Hess says the senator failed to achieve one of his most important goals: ``Lloyd Bentsen's job was to convince voters that Michael Dukakis should be president. But for most of the debate, he lost sight of that altogether. He mostly spoke for Bentsen.''

``Quayle, on the other hand, attacked Dukakis incessantly,'' he said.

Republican Sen. Bob Kasten suggests that Bentsen wasn't entirely comfortable defending his running mate, with whom he disagrees on some key issues. Mr. Kasten says Bentsen may have acted out of self-interest, with his eyes on his home state:

``Bentsen didn't say one thing that would jeopardize his reelection to the Senate from Texas. So if it's coming to Dukakis's rescue on gun control, on capital punishment, on contra aid - or not alienating any voters back there in Texas, not one thing he said in the debate identified him as a Dukakis liberal.''

Professor Berg, however, suggests Quayle also showed important weaknesses, especially when he had no pre-planned answer for a question.

Quayle hung on to his game plan like a life preserver, but came close to sinking when reporters pushed him hard to learn what he would do if he suddenly became president, Berg says. The professor doubts that Quayle satisfied very many voters who were genuinely concerned about his qualifications.

Noting that Quayle had again refused to divulge his grades in college, Berg observes that after seeing the debate, ``we don't need to see his grades now.''

But David Chagall, another California political analyst, was more upbeat for the GOP. He called the political impact of the debate ``basically even.''

He suggested Bentsen's Kennedy comment came close to being ``disdainful of a whole generation,'' and appeared ``condescending.''

Pollster Mervin Field suggests Quayle was ``good,'' but Bentsen was ``outstanding.'' Mr. Field said one danger for Democrats was that Bentsen looked so presidential that some might suggest the ticket ``should be turned around.''

As always, after this debate the ``spinmeisters'' from both parties tried to influence what reporters wrote. A score of ``spinners'' worked the crowd of 1,500 reporters here for hours after the debate.

``Quayle showed he can slug it out with anyone,'' cheered GOP chairman Frank Fahrenkopf.

``Tonight showed the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket has the experience to lead America,'' opined Susan Estrich, the Dukakis campaign manager.

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