Score Unchanged

EITHER Bill Clinton nor President Bush hit a "home run" in the first debate. Neither is likely to surge with voters after the event. Except for one heated exchange over the character/patriotism issue, neither candidate slipped into the personal attacks which have marked recent campaigning. Each stuck to familiar statements of his positions on economic growth, health care, and fiscal policy.

The evening's livelier rhetoric and touches of humor were left to independent candidate Ross Perot. He counterpunched a question about "experience," for instance, by drily commenting, "Well, they've got a point. I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt."

Mr. Perot's assertions that what the country needs is action struck many analysts as simplistic, but they probably resonated in the living rooms of so-called Reagan Democrats, the swing voters whose loyalties are critical to the outcome of this election.

Will feisty talk during the debates be enough to convince such voters that Perot has even a slim hope of winning in November? Americans remain leery about wasting their votes on a long shot.

With neither main candidate scoring big, the de facto winner was Mr. Clinton. He didn't hurt himself with any mistakes, and he more than the president appeared to keep to a theme: his "invest and grow" economic vision and his determination to lead a unified country. Clinton's lead in the polls should be safe.

Mr. Bush, too, took a cautious approach, avoiding the shrill tone that can creep into his stump speeches, remaining presidential in bearing, and emphasizing his experience. Bush frequently reminded viewers of the changed state of the world with regard to freedom and the near demise of communism. He often referred to his role as commander in chief.

In the arena where leadership may count most to voters - the economy - the president pledged to put former Secretary of State James Baker in charge.

Despite Mr. Baker's considerable talents, that probably reassured few viewers. The same holds for Bush's insistence that the economy is not as bad as his opponents say.

Sunday's debate may have been the big one in terms of audience. But it left plenty of ground virtually untouched: educational reform, free trade, environmental policy. Americans should stay tuned for Thursday's and next Monday's contests, as well as tonight's vice-presidential debate. Someone could still knock it out of the park.

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