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First Reactions: the First Debate

THE presidential debate nationally telecast Dec. 15 for the Democratic candidates, the first such of seven, showed how far the American political process has come in the age of television. There were none of the beads of sweat, the two-caged-men effect of the Nixon-Kennedy encounters. The six Democrats were comfortable with the camera for the 90 minutes, questioned by NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who wandered prosecutor-style in front of them.All in all, even without the Hamlet on the Hudson, Mario Cuomo, who was still wrestling down a budget deal in Albany, they were not a bad field. Former California governor Jerry Brown was intent on biting his litter mates, calling them establishment Pac-men politicians and announcing his toll-free $100-limit contributions hotline number, until Sen. Bob Kerrey faced him down. For Brown, by the way, it wasn't all an act: He bristles and snaps at the establishment in off-camera encounters too. He's an origi nal, and if you want bullet trains instead of B-1 bombers, volunteer youth corps to convert unemployed potential into public service jobs, he could be your man. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was smooth, quick, and articulate; he will have to decide whether, next time, to respond to Brown's baiting. Former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts argued with intense agitation for American competitiveness. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, favored in his native state for the caucuses that start the delegate season, gave his populist, stick-it-to-the-rich, speech. The face of Nebraska's Kerrey is dominated by large eyes and a looming forehead; he was well-prepared and well-spoken ; he cloaks an inner fire at times with a stage laughter. There could be more there than we have seen; he may prove charismatic. Virginia's Gov. Doug Wilder is a most accessible candidate: Grandson of a slave, a Korean War veteran, and advocate of a tax cut to spur consumer spending, he has an open smile and open gestures; he signals no inner friction with his extrovert role as politician. We begin with manner because a first issue of picking a candidate is simply, Do I want to live with this person the next four years? Can I stand his voice? Is he a drip? Would he say the right things at a funeral? When he relaxes, do I relax with him or does he put me on edge? How does he connect in a room full of able, devious, powerful men? Does he hold his own? He need only speak once, and then briefly: Does he quietly discern the themes which bind the group? The gender of that paragraph leads to this: I missed, more than Mario Cuomo, a woman on the stage. None of the men was that outstanding. Open discussion dispells any notion of male mystique. Though a Republican, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas comes to mind as competitive in the presidential class of 1992. Hearing these men - and this is not denigrating, because they did well - made me feel that women should not hesitate to run for president. They can do it. Also missing: Depth of experience in the specific craft of running for president. Jimmy Carter's sneak attack on the presidency in 1976, an Iowa blitz, can no longer be repeated; everyone is onto it. Carter's incumbent advantage in 1980 was overcome by Ronald Reagan with serious presidential campaigning behind him, a team corporation-like in preparation. Reagan had an ideological platform supported by an action program, as well as a persona that came across comfortably before live and camera audiences. Indeed, if Cuomo were the strongest potential Democrat and were to lose to Bush next November, still the likeliest outcome, he would benefit from the national campaign experience for 1996. Winning a nomination is easier than winning an election. Running in 50 states is not like running for a single state's office. The Republican electoral college advantage in the population-sparse Western states has to be calculated. The phenomenon of a handful of swing states - Florida, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Ohio - as key to the outcome, and the need to carry some of the South, complicate strategy. So it is not only whom can we live with, but who can win it? Jimmy Carter won it. Ronald Reagan won it. George Bush - with a lifetime of chit-collecting in official jobs, of alliance building, a first failed candidacy behind him - won it. Who could come out of a loss strengthened? Life throws presidents, like the rest of us, many kinds of balls. We do not connect on all of them. The Democrats have an interesting enough group to provoke the question, Who will be the survivor?

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