IT is not too early to make some ``winner-and-loser'' calls in this presidential campaign: Who won the debates? On sheer debating skill alone, Gov. Michael Dukakis was superior in the first encounter. But when Vice-President George Bush was finally able to brush up his own technique, in the final TV confrontation, the Bush charm and warmth made him the clear overall winner in the real debates that have taken place: the contest for the hearts of the voters.
How much of a deficit has Dan Quayle been on the ticket? By pairing Mr. Bush against Mr. Dukakis in a one-on-one contest that asks the voters to state their preferences without considering the vice-presidential choices, the polls show that Bush picks up four or five percentage points. So it does appear that the ``Quayle-drag factor'' has been damaging Bush.
This development makes the vice-president blame the press, as he did in the final debate, for what he calls an unprecedented and terribly unfair ``pounding.'' But when he laughingly said that this was the first time he had ever seen a presidential candidate running against a vice-presidential candidate, Bush may have been telling us that he was on to something.
Perhaps Bush has also noted that there has been a big plus for him in his Quayle problem. The Indiana senator's alleged inadequacies have clearly become the main target of press scrutiny and of Democratic criticism and ridicule. Thus, one could argue that Mr. Quayle has, unintentionally, of course, diverted the Dukakis attack from Bush to himself - and, in the process, has been of immeasurable help to the Bush campaign.
Remember how Lloyd Bentsen overpowered Dan Quayle in that debate? Yet Mr. Bentsen directed all of his attention to trying to show up Quayle. He almost completely neglected this opportunity to criticize Bush. And his ``Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy'' sent Quayle reeling.
But wait. Quayle was using his time in that debate most profitably - concentrating on attacking Dukakis. His impact on the viewers may have been subliminal. But his repeated allegations - that Dukakis would be a spender and a taxer and soft on defense - may well have been more effective on changing viewer attitudes on the two main candidates than these same viewers realized. They may have come away from their TV sets with a sneer for Dan Quayle but with less confidence in Michael Dukakis.
Actually, the polls after the Quayle-Bentsen debate showed that it had little impact on the presidential contest. Bush was able to maintain just about the same margin he had gained over Dukakis before that debate.
So the history of this campaign may record that by becoming the punching bag for the Dukakis camp (and the press), Quayle helped Bush more than he hurt him. Politics takes some very funny bounces, and this may be one of them.
How about the Bentsen impact on the race? Everyone is writing and everyone is saying that the Texas senator is the real hero of this campaign. Indeed, many people are saying that the Democratic ticket should be reversed.
No doubt about it, Bentsen has graced the ticket, and he's getting all the raves. And he deserves most of them.
Let's stand back, though, and take a fresh look at him. Why did Dukakis pick him? Sure, because he felt that Bentsen was a man of substance and someone who would be well prepared to take over the presidency, if need be.
In the end Dukakis took Bentsen because he had in mind John Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson in 1960, selecting Johnson to help him win Texas. Johnson delivered. Dukakis knew that he, too, needed Texas to win - so he picked Bentsen when he might have gone to someone else, such as John Glenn.
But Bentsen doesn't seem to be ``delivering'' Texas, nor is he helping much in the South as a whole. He is being quite persuasive with a lot of Texas voters. They like his cut. But at this point these voters appear persuaded only enough to return Bentsen to the Senate. Bush seems to have the lead in Texas.
Finally, how is it all going to come out? The race may well be over. It may indeed have been Harry Truman's ``give-'em-hell'' whistle-stop campaign around the United States that enabled him to pull off his upset victory over Tom Dewey. Or perhaps he caught up with Dewey and passed him much earlier in that campaign, as post-election studies have indicated. Certainly, the polling at that time was not what it is today. And in those last few weeks, the polling had stopped.
Even before the last debate, Vice-President Bush seemed to have enough states clearly behind him, or leaning toward him, to have the electoral victory in hand. With the new momentum coming from Thursday's encounter with Governor Dukakis, Bush might well surge forward to an impressive electoral victory.