IT'S looking more and more like George Bush's race. Some big states remain too close to call, and Mr. Bush's widening lead is somewhat constrained by the Quayle factor. But movement is clearly in Bush's favor. With his second and final debate with Michael Dukakis over, the prospect of change in the dynamics of the race is much diminished. It's not that Governor Dukakis didn't do well. But Bush went into the debate ahead and came out ahead. Polls have found Bush perceived as the clear winner.
Last time, challenger Dukakis benefited simply from sharing a platform with Bush. But this time Mr. Dukakis had to make the case for change and for him as the agent of safe, well-managed change.
He ran in the primaries as a moderate technocrat; but in continuing to position himself so, he has run the risk of cutting himself off from the heart, if not the mind, of his party. It's hard to see how he reached out Thursday to the populist wing of his party - or the Jackson wing.
He was being urged to be ``warm and fuzzy,'' but also to put Bush on the defensive with a ``knockout blow.'' He had to be a sort of prizefighting teddy bear, in other words. He had some good lines, but he also lost some opportunities.
Faced with a question of dubious taste - whether he would oppose the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered - he at least stuck to his position. But he conveyed no depth of feeling, no personal outrage or grief.
Bush, on the other hand, was more clearly at ease, relaxed. His subjects and verbs agreed; his syntax hung together as never before. When asked to identify contemporary ``American heroes,'' he named names, including Ronald Reagan's; Dukakis answered in generics.
The GOP strategy has been to build up a negative, specifically a ``liberal,'' image of the Massachusetts governor. Thursday night, though, Bush could afford to be generous: He complimented his opponent's devotion to family - another opening Dukakis didn't quite rise to.
When the possibility of a third debate arose - a ``surprise'' the Bush camp expected from Dukakis - the vice-president shot it down in no uncertain terms. That Dukakis pushed the matter again later only emphasized his underdog status. At any rate, it's not clear what a third debate would accomplish; anyone paying attention has already heard the lines from both sides often enough to start singing along.
And some issues just don't lend themselves to the two-minute, one-minute format. Dukakis's refusal to promise a balanced federal budget was probably more honest than Bush's recital of the balanced-budget amendment and line-item-veto litany. But neither candidate was convincing on defense or social security, sensitive matters on which neither man as president would make a move without bipartisan congressional support.
The debates echo those of four years ago, when Walter Mondale knocked Mr. Reagan off his stride in the first - only to have him come back strong in the second.