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For Improved Debates

How can the second presidential debate be made better than the first? The question came up in a test group of Philadelphia voters. They reacted to the Oct. 6 Clinton-Dole encounter a little like the audience for a Broadway musical that comes out whistling the scenery. Or like the overnight banner headline reaching for news: "Head to head - and mostly polite."

Is that all there is? Bob Dole surely remembers the song sung by Peggy Lee from his youth. And Bill Clinton ought to take notice, since Peggy has gone on beyond Dole's span of years showing how little age means if you know the tune and have the beat.

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There should be more news from a debate than muting of rancor. As the Philadelphia test group suggested, both candidates, to be effective in debate, need to move on from the long-playing records of material heard endlessly in the campaign.

What's needed Oct. 16:

Less recycling of slogans and statistics. One voter suggested that a light flash every time a fact is distorted. It could be blinding at times.

More sense of what-I'm-going-to-do and why-I'm-going-to-do-it.

Dole, for example, might not leave his centerpiece tax cut as a benefit for individuals - but make a cogent argument for how he thinks it will reenergize the nation's whole economy.

Clinton might go beyond what someone has called 10-dollar solutions for three-dollar problems - important as family leave and college stipends are - and paint a larger picture of what being in the presidency has taught him that the country needs for that bridge to the future.

We will say more about adequate treatment of foreign policy, race relations, and other matters. Meanwhile, in their mock-up rehearsals for debates, we suggest the candidates employ stand-ins not only for adversaries but for the American people.

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