SOME 200 people in Richmond, Va., made a "citizens' arrest" Thursday evening when they stopped - at least for 90 minutes - the "character" trashing that has marked the presidential campaign.
One early questioner in the town-meeting debate among the three major candidates made it clear that the audience of uncommitted voters was tired of personal attacks; they had come to hear Messrs. Bush, Clinton, and Perot talk about the issues. The next questioner slapped the cuffs on when he asked for a "pledge" that the candidates would talk about the "people's needs."
With that warning, none of the candidates was foolish enough to hurl any brickbats. The result was the best of the three presidential or vice presidential debates to date - an informative, sometimes detailed discussion by the candidates of the leading national issues and the three men's programs to deal with them.
During that tedious debate-about-debates between the Bush and Clinton camps - in which the interests of the candidates, rather than of the American public, seemed to animate the bickering over formats - who guessed that the argument would yield such an illuminating political event as Thursday's exchange?
But the candidates and their tacticians don't really deserve the credit for the successful contest. It was a handful of ordinary American citizens - intelligent, articulate, earnest in their search for answers and leadership - that insisted on the debate's serious and constructive tone.
The candidates had little choice but to be civil and engaging - not only because of the cautionary early questions, but also because they were compelled to look honest-to-goodness voting citizens in the eye and respond to their heartfelt concerns.
As moderator Carole Simpson noted, it was a historic occasion - the first time the town-meeting format was used in a presidential debate. The format should become a fixture in presidential campaigns. More than any other event during the long race, Thursday's debate produced politics of, by, and for the people.
Tonight's final presidential face-off will have a hybrid format. When the candidates are questioned by a panel of journalists, will they manage to avoid the wooden, overly scripted air that has generally characterized such debates (including the first debate Oct. 11)? And during the single-moderator portion, can they stay above the schoolyard squabbling that marred the vice presidential debate Oct. 13?
There's no greater way the candidates could earn Americans' "trust" than by demonstrating that Thursday's display of civic-mindedness was no fluke.