GEORGE BUSH desperately needs a grand-slam home run. Like a World Series team that's badly behind, Mr. Bush and the Republicans are fighting for their survival as the campaign races toward the second presidential debate on Thursday in Richmond, Va.
Debate No. 1 in St. Louis failed to turn the game around for the Republican White House. The pundits and the polls agree: Democrat Bill Clinton maintained his lead. And perhaps the biggest gainer was independent candidate Ross Perot.
"Clinton and Bush had their moments in the first debate, but Perot was the entertaining guy," says political scientist Wayne Parent in Louisiana.
Pollster David Moore in New Hampshire says: "The first debate was very helpful to Clinton, helpful to Perot, and damaging to Bush."
Mr. Moore, author of "The Super-Pollsters," explains: "It was damaging to Bush because it didn't allow him to accomplish anything he wanted. He didn't show he was in charge on the economy; he made no inroads on the character issue against Clinton; and he was fighting two opponents, not just Clinton."
Bush hoped the St. Louis debate would change the dynamics of the campaign. It did, but not the way he planned. The president's support in the overnight polls sagged, while Perot became - at least briefly - the man of the hour.
A snap survey of 637 registered voters by ABC-TV found that 28 percent thought Clinton had "won" the debate, 24 percent thought Perot came out on top, and 18 percent said Bush did best. Twenty-six percent called it a tie.
Also revealing: Clinton's support among these voters slipped from 48 percent to 46 percent; Bush fell from 34 to 31; and Perot rose from 6 to 14. The rest of those polled were undecided.
Republicans tacitly acknowledged that the second debate is critical. "The president is going to come out smoking," says conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan.
Moore says the president failed to achieve his most essential goal in the first debate. He explains: "A president who is in a bad economy must shift attention to the character of his opponent."
The president tried. Going into this debate, he raised questions about Clinton's 1969 trip to Moscow. On the debate stage, he criticized Clinton's role in antiwar demonstrations in Great Britain that same year, when Clinton was a college student. But Moore says Clinton effectively neutralized the issue.
The "defining moment" of the debate came when Clinton criticized Bush for questioning his patriotism, Moore says. Clinton did it by citing the president's father, former Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, who had denounced the McCarthyism of the 1950s, when the patriotism of many prominent Americans was called into doubt.
While Bush struggles for momentum, Clinton's goal in these debates is more conservative: Avoid gaffes, look presidential, maintain his big lead in the polls.
Unless Bush can shake up this race, Clinton could win the election simply by running a cautious, make-no-mistakes campaign.
Both Democratic and Republican pollsters agree that, in the week prior to the debate, Clinton widened his lead across the country. The Bush campaign reportedly has canceled its advertising in Illinois, once considered a battleground state. And in Ohio - vital to a Bush victory - the president is reported trailing by double-digit margins.
So the final two presidential debates, plus tonight's vice presidential debate in Atlanta, are seen as Bush's last best hope.
In all of this, Perot could play a larger-than-expected role. In the first debate, his crisp one-liners, his sense of humor, and his take-no-prisoners style all kept Bush off balance.
For example, when Bush suggested that experience was his biggest advantage, he obviously was aiming a shot at the youthful governor from Arkansas. But Perot put the focus right back on Bush's management of Washington. He fired back: "I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt.... I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world, the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialized world."
When Bush hit Clinton for organizing antiwar marches during his college days in Great Britain, Perot again deflected criticism from the governor. He said the actions of one's youth should be seen in a different light than those of a mature adult - an obvious reference to Bush.
With Perot hurling fast balls and Clinton throwing curves, Bush will need keen reflexes to hit one out of the park.