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The Tabloid Debate

`I was a little bit worried there wouldn't be a free flowing discussion here tonight.'

- Moderator Hal Bruno, shortly into the vice presidential debate

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IF Sunday's opening presidential debate lacked energy and punch, the vice presidential debates Tuesday more than made up for it. Both party candidates, Sen. Al Gore Jr. and Vice President Dan Quayle, took their one-time 90-minute shot at a national audience to the limit, and both accomplished what they set out to do. The third candidate, Ross Perot's running mate Vice Adm. James Stockdale, was not ready for the level and range of the debate, though he did get off a good line after an especially petulant back-and-forth between Mr. Gore and Mr. Quayle: "Now I can see why this country is in gridlock."

Quayle's task was to stick a tax-and-spend label on the Clinton-Gore ticket. But more than that, he was given the dirty job of attacking Clinton's integrity, which he did with relish, saying more than a dozen times that the Arkansas governor can't be trusted, and coining a phrase - "pulling a Clinton" - to describe what he said were shifts in both Clinton's and Gore's positions.

Gore articulated well the Democrats' theme of change - citing a lack of growth in jobs under President Bush, "the worst economic record since the Depression," and the failure of "trickle-down" economics. As for White House boasts that it ended the cold war, Gore quipped that that was like "the rooster taking credit for the sunrise."

Conventional wisdom foresaw Gore mopping up Quayle. But by Tuesday expectations were so high for Gore that conventional wisdom had any coherent debate by Quayle making him the winner. Quayle is not as vacuous as he's portrayed. He's become a feisty, aggressive champion for Bush. A reading of transcripts, however, shows Quayle rambling. His tactic of shrill interruptions hid answers less substantive than Gore's on health care, abortion, the environment, and defense.

Mr. Stockdale, a former POW, is a hero, not a presidential stand-in; his choice puts into question Mr. Perot's team-building skills.

The single moderator format resulted in a "tabloid debate." It set the stage for tonight's similar format. But it was hardly a golden moment in American politics.

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