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Lively debate turns on economy, character

No voices were raised, no punches were thrown, but the tension between President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton was so thick you could have cut it with a knife during the first presidential debate Sunday night.

Although a panel of journalists stuck mostly to questions about taxes, health care, foreign policy and defense spending, one of the first questions was about character. That's when Bush brought up Clinton's opposition to the Vietnam War. The president has clearly decided it's his best weapon against the Arkansas governor, who has a strong lead in the polls.

"I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I questioned _ I put it this way: I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country and organize demonstrations against your own country on foreign soil," Bush said. "It's not a question of patriotism. It's a question of character and judgment."

The president, a decorated World War II veteran, didn't mention that Clinton avoided the Vietnam draft but dwelled on the anti-war demonstrations Clinton helped organize in England while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1969 and 1970.

He suggested Clinton should admit he was wrong, just as Bush has admitted making a mistake by raising taxes in 1990.

Clinton pointed out Bush was accused of McCarthyism not for talking about the demonstrations, but for implying last week that something sinister occurred when Clinton visited Moscow in 1970. Then he took a direct slap at the president's integrity.

"When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong," Clinton said. "He was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war, but I love my country. We need a president who will bring this country together, not divide it."

Bush idolized his father and by some accounts has always tried to live up to Prescott Bush's example.

Independent candidate Ross Perot, who marched to his own drummer most of the night, also seemed to take a shot at Bush with his answer to the character question.

"I think it's very important to measure when and where things occurred," he said. A young man might be forgiven for mistakes, but, "when you're a senior official in the federal government spending billions of dollars of taxpayers' money and you're a mature individual and you make a mistake, then that was on our ticket."

The men were also asked about the need for experience, and Perot brought down the house with his answer.

"They've got a point. I don't have any experience in running up a $4-trillion debt. I don't have any experience in a gridlock government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else . . .," he said. "If we're at a point in history where we want to stop talking about it and do it . . . I've got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem."

Perot, the Texas computer billionaire who revived his campaign Oct. 1, only mentioned the specifics of his austere economic plan when asked. He spent most of his time criticizing Washington and claiming he could clean up the mess in no time.

Clinton and especially Bush wove many lines from their stump speeches into their answers, but the 90-minute debate gave them time to explain in some detail the differences in their economic plans and the similarities in their approach to defense and foreign policy.

Bush seemed to take personal offense at the way Clinton has focused his campaign on the stagnant economy.

"I know the only way he can win is to make everybody believe the economy's worse than it is," Bush said. "This country's not coming apart at the seams, for heaven's sake. We're the United States of America."

He suggested that, if he is re-elected, he will make Chief of Staff James Baker a sort of domestic czar. Bush's abiding interest is foreign affairs, and he took full credit Sunday night for the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and for the start of peace talks in the Middle East.

"We're turned so inward, we don't understand the global picture," he complained at one point.

This was the first of three scheduled debates, and some of the issues the candidates discussed were simply apple pie and motherhood. They agreed that drugs are bad and should not be legalized, AIDS needs more money for research, race relations should be better and families should be strong.

They agreed the country needs jobs and each claimed his plan would provide them. But they differed in the degree of their alarm about the country's problems. Bush insisted things aren't so bad, Clinton showed his abiding faith in government to set things right and Perot predicted imminent disaster.

"We are sitting on a ticking time bomb, folks, because we have totally mismanaged our country, and we had better get it back under control," Perot said.