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Monday, October 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Clinton, Dole Politely Clash -- Debate Shows Clear Differences But Is A Standoff -- Analysis / The Debate

Washington Post

HARTFORD, Conn. - Bob Dole last night was a persistent prosecutor, relentlessly challenging President Clinton's claim that things are good in America, and he did it with occasional humor and little personal invective. But Dole found himself against an unflappable defense lawyer, who ducked and parried and counterattacked.

It's not likely that such a standoff will turn around a presidential race that long has been tilted against Dole.

At a time when the economy is growing and public confidence is on the rise, Dole was arguing a difficult case. And Clinton knew it. Whenever things got tough, the president quickly retreated to his contention that the country has improved on his watch. "It's not midnight in America," he said. "We are better off than we were four years ago."

The American people got a clear look at the differences between the candidates last night in a debate largely shorn of the extreme rhetoric that has sometimes marked their television commercials or campaign stump speeches. They clashed - politely - over education, foreign policy, taxes and deficits. Each tried to shove the other out of the political center.

This was not the angry Bob Dole some had feared might re-emerge,

but a determined Bob Dole. He tried to reassure the national television audience that he had helped to save Social Security in 1983 and would not let Medicare go under. Though he never missed an opportunity to brand Clinton a liberal, he pointed out he had worked with liberal senators on programs like food stamps and child nutrition. "Stop scaring seniors, Mr. President," Dole said.

Liberal use of liberal label

But Clinton appeared equal to the challenge. He resisted the liberal label whenever Dole tried to stick it on him, and at one point, after ticking off claims of reducing the deficit, cutting the welfare rolls and passing legislation aimed at putting 100,000 more police on the streets, he said, "The American people can make up their mind whether that's a liberal record or a record that's good for America."

Clinton's opening statement set the tone for much of the debate. He was upbeat and future-oriented, claiming the nation has made progress under him and that he needs four more years to continue the job. Dole's opening was more personal, designed to wipe away impressions of him as negative or harsh.

Kept Clinton on defensive

Much of the debate was fought on turf helpful to Dole. The president spent far more time defending his record than Dole was forced to spend defending the 104th Congress.

But Dole needed to do far more than that. He had to shake confidence not only in the president, but in the public's view of the country. He likely fell short.

According to three polls conducted immediately afterward, Clinton fared better than Dole.

A Gallup poll conducted for CNN found that 51 percent of Americans believed Clinton won the debate, compared to 32 percent who were more impressed with Dole. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

A CBS News poll gave Clinton 50 percent to Dole's 28 percent, with 17 percent calling the debate a tie.

An ABC News poll showed 50 percent for Clinton, compared to 29 percent for Dole. Nineteen percent said it was a tie. That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Seeing the world differently

There were few memorable moments that will shape the perceptions of the voters.

Near the end of the evening, after another of countless exchanges in which each man attempted to push the other out of the political center, Clinton said, "We just see the world in different ways, and you folks out there are going to have to decide who's right."

Dole was forceful in criticizing Clinton's foreign policy and his record on the economy. On the question of whether people are better off after four years of Clinton's presidency, Dole said, "Saddam Hussein is probably better off than he was four years ago." But he said the American people are "working harder and harder and paying more in taxes."

Dole emphasizes sense of humor

Dole got the best of Clinton in one-liners and humorous lines. But whenever Dole appeared to have pushed Clinton back, the president stepped up to defend his record.

On foreign policy, Clinton said he had done the right thing under difficult circumstances, particularly in the Middle East. On domestic policy, he constantly reminded the audience that Dole had opposed the creation of Medicare or had voted to cut school loans or had attempted to reduce the growth of Medicare by $270 billion.

Dole faced the more difficult challenge, because he needed to accomplish so much. He needed to remind voters of the reasons they do not like Clinton and undermine the president's record without reminding them of his past reputation as a hatchet man.

He carefully kept harshness to a minimum and reminded Clinton he was referring to him as "Mr. President."

Dole has suffered from a perception among voters that he does not understand the country he seeks to lead, a conclusion many voters appear to have drawn because of his age and the way he talks about the world. More troubling for Dole is that many voters have tuned out the race.

Whether Dole overcame those perceptions is doubtful, in part because he often reverted to shorthand descriptions and legislative language that can lose an audience.

Clinton's performance was much like his campaign has been: careful, contained and generally cautious.

------------------------------------------------------------------ Links to the Commission on Presidential Debates Web site and the text of last night's debate are on The Seattle Times Top Stories Web site at: http://www.seattletimes.com ------------------------------------------------------------------

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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