DAN QUAYLE was outclassed in his debate with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. He made no big gaffe, and on the pass-fail scale, he was deemed to have passed. But Bush campaign heavyweights were privately conveying their view that Senator Quayle had done so just barely. This doesn't mean a clear victory for Mr. Bentsen, however. The two men had very different charges.
Bentsen had to make the case for change - to persuade voters to abandon the party that has presided over the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history. If he and Michael Dukakis win in November, it will likely be because they manage to tap into a vein of public uncertainty about long-range economic concerns and social justice. But it's by no means clear that that will happen.
Bentsen did, however, demonstrate familiarity with a broad range of domestic and foreign-policy issues. He did a creditable job of portraying the still relatively unknown Democratic governor of Massachusetts as an effective executive. But the most optimistic spin to put on Bentsen's performance would be to say it probably won some independent voters to the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket.
This may tighten the race, but will leave its basic dynamic unchanged; the election is still George Bush's to lose.
All Dan Quayle, on the other hand, had to do was to demonstrate that his qualifications to take over the the Oval Office in an emergency were sufficient at least not to drive Republicans to vote for Dukakis.
The big take-your-breath-away line of the evening was, of course, Bentsen's comment, ``Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.'' It might have been a low blow if Mr. Quayle himself hadn't been making the comparison all along - as Bentsen pointed out. But someone had to call Quayle on that point, one can't help thinking. He seems to glom onto discrete facts (the number of years Kennedy served in Congress) without a sense of the larger truth surrounding them (the way Kennedy captured the public imagination).
Quayle was visibly ill at ease and on the defensive. He seemed to interpret most questions as being really aimed at his qualifications. Three times he was asked, ``What would you do if you had to take over the Oval Office?'' He could have answered creditably in any of a number of ways: either programmatically, or more inspirationally, invoking a nation that pulls together in crisis, etc. Instead he reverted to the lines etched onto the TelePrompTer of his mind's eye, talking about his accomplishments and his experience.
It was all a little painful to behold. As they did last month, partisans will find ways to argue that their man won. Certainly there were moments when the questioners came down harder on Quayle than Bentsen. Tom Brokaw opened with a sharply worded query to Quayle, ``When did you last meet personally with poor children...?,'' which he answered well enough to make Mr. Brokaw look a bit silly.
But the public is clearly not as comfortable with Senator Quayle as Mr. Bush proclaims himself to be.
The pre-debate quip was that Quayle would be seen as a ``winner'' as long as he didn't drool visibly during the debate. The American people should demand more of their vice-presidents than that.