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GOP Concedes Bush Performed Poorly

By Timothy Clifford
Newsday

RICHMOND, Va.

Republicans struggled after the debate Thursday to explain why President Bush put little time and fury into his character attacks on front-runner Bill Clinton, while Democrats smilingly insisted that their lead was safe.

But both parties agreed that independent candidate Ross Perot's performance had slipped from his impressive showing in the first debate Sunday.

Despite insisting that Bush ``got his licks in,'' Republican Party Chairman Rich Bond conceded that the ``format did not lend itself'' to the kind of bitter free-for-all that characterized Tuesday's vice presidential debate among incumbent Dan Quayle, Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., and Perot's running mate, James Stockdale.

``This wasn't a night to get into someone's chest,'' Bond explained to reporters. ``I think he (Bush) had the right tone.''

When asked to point to Bush's best moment in the debate, Bond picked the president's closing statement on trust, explaining, ``Well, that was his only prepared statement, the only thing he worked on to sum things up.''

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater insisted that Bush was ``very aggressive,'' but then said, ``It was our game plan to attack on the issues, to show how our crime bill is better, how our health care plan is better.''

Clinton campaign communications director George Stephanopoulos, who earlier predicted that the president would mount a fierce attack, said, ``President Bush tried to bring it back to that old patriotism canard, but the crowd just did not care. They came here to hear about health care and the deficit. Bush just looked a little lost.''

Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor said that the Democratic nominee came across ``strong and confident _ ready to be president,'' while Bush scored ``no hits and no runs.''

Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown, picking up the baseball metaphor, said Bush ``needed a home run here; I think he struck out.''

Both Republicans and Democrats gave low marks to Perot, who got great reviews after the first debate.

Stephanopoulos told reporters that Perot ``kind of wore thin,'' while Bond said that the Texas tycoon sounded like he had ``nothing new to offer.''

Perot aides acknowledged that their candidate's answers weren't as crisp and focused as they were in the first debate, when so many viewers believed he had won the night.

A CBS-New York Times survey released Thursday put Clinton in the lead with 47 percent to Bush's 34 percent and Perot trailing at 10 percent _ no change from its poll 10 days ago.

Republicans cited the latest ABC News and USA Today-CNN-Gallup polls that show the Democrat falling up to five points over the past week. The ABC poll, taken Tuesday and Wednesday (after the vice presidential debate), shows Clinton leading Bush 44 to 37 percent with Perot at 11 percent. The Democrat peaked over the weekend with 49 percent while Bush was at 35 percent

Not surprisingly, deputy Bush-Quayle campaign manager James Lake focused on the apparent dip in Clinton's ABC and USA Today-CNN-Gallup support, saying: ``Watch for it to continue. We know his negatives are building significantly. The fact is that the character and trust issues are beginning to really tell.''

King's show twice this month, even fielding questions from a call-in audience.

All three candidates showed that expertise as they strode around a temporary stage built atop a basketball floor and under the University of Richmond Spiders' scoreboard.

The candidates had begun their role-playing from the moment they first arrived in this Virginia capital to temporarily set aside their own campaign scripts and join together in 90 minutes of political theater.

Bush, as president, descended by helicopter, flying the 100 miles southward from the White House to Richmond aboard the chopper that only he is permitted to claim as Marine One.

Clinton, as the confident challenger, rolled in by bus, rumbling down the highway from nearby Williamsburg where he had holed up in virtual silence to protect his voice and avoid injury to his lead in the polls.

And Perot, as Texas maverick, jetted in by private plane, accompanied by neither reporters nor handlers, seemingly confident that he could steal the show by force of personality alone.

Even their last-minute preparations were true to form. Bush and Clinton both jogged, hopeful that exercise might clear over-rehearsed heads. Perot, still in Texas, got a haircut. He said he gets his best ideas in the barber's chair.