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A VICE-PRESIDENTIAL FOOD FIGHT!

If children hollered and squabbled the way the vice presidential candidates did during their debate Tuesday night, the children would be sent to their rooms.

Vice President Dan Quayle was hyperactive, swinging wildly at the character of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton from the first moment of the debate. Quayle clearly didn't care how obnoxious he was as long as his message came through: Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth.

No matter what the question, Quayle began to recite a laundry list of Clinton's contradictions and deceptions as Arkansas governor and as a presidential candidate.

Clinton's running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, didn't take up for Clinton or try to answer Quayle on the character charges. How could he? Most of Quayle's examples were accurate.

But Gore also repeatedly missed chances to turn the trust question against Bush, only once mentioning "read my lips" and never once mentioning the Iran-Contra scandal.

Instead, Gore stuck to carefully rehearsed answers, delivered as if he were speaking to rather slow kindergarteners, beginning most sentences with "Bill Clinton and I . . ."

The men had 75 seconds to answer each question, then five minutes for discussion. Calling it a "free for all" would be too mild. It was like the political panel shows on TV where everybody shouts at once, the ones Republican Patrick Buchanan calls "intellectual food fights."

Gore almost matched Quayle in the number of interruptions and tried to shout him down to defend his own record in the Senate and to quarrel about who's secretly trying to shaft the middle class.

All of which gave former Vice Adm. James Stockdale the perfect opening to promote the candidacy of independent Ross Perot.

"I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock," the white-haired sea dog said.

Stockdale said he didn't care about trickle-down economics or tax-and-spend or long-term plans to balance the budget. Perot would balance the budget in five years flat, he said.

"We're people of a non-professional category who are sick of this terrible thing that has happened to the country," Stockdale said. "We've got a man who can fix it, and I'm working for him."

Stockdale, 68, had been the most intriguing of the characters going into the debate because he is the least known. The defining experience of his life was 7{ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, where he said he was "sovereign" of a civilization of several hundred other prisoners who had their own laws.

"The best thing I had going for me was I had no contact with Washington all those years," he said, and he didn't seem to be joking.

Sometimes Stockdale was refreshing and funny.

"Who am I? Why am I here?" he said in answer to the first question. "I'm not a politician. Everybody knows that. So don't expect me to use the language of a Washington insider."

He certainly didn't. He seemed to grope for words. Several times, Stockdale skipped a turn because he had nothing more to say. He missed one question because his hearing aid wasn't turned on. He took his glasses off and on, squinting at notes. Sometimes his answers just didn't make sense.

The doddering performance was painful to watch. But Stockdale didn't look nearly as silly as Gore and Quayle.

Both of them hurled accusations, made obscure references and interrupted each other so often that Quayle at one point actually shouted, "My turn! My turn!"

Quayle changed the subject every few seconds so that questions were never fully answered. Hal Bruno of ABC, the beleaguered moderator, tried to ask about jobs and defense cuts, the environment and abortion, health care and cities, but the discourse always dissolved into bickering. Each man claimed to have the best plan, but truth was impossible to discern.

"We throw out the topic and then we drift, but I think it's making for a healthy exchange," Bruno said lamely.

The audience, divided equally into cheering sections for Bush, Clinton and Perot, ignored orders not to applaud, but Bruno persuaded them not to hiss.

Gore, who is wooden on his most relaxed days, was an automaton Tuesday night. With each question, he would stand straight, face the camera and activate his memory banks for the perfect, 75-second response. He would turn one-quarter to the right and move his arms while tangling with Quayle, but his facial expression never changed.

Quayle swung his arms and shouted and eagerly told Gore to "lighten up." He was frantic to get his point across from the moment of his opening statement.

"Bill Clinton's economic plan and his agenda will make matters much worse," Quayle said. "Bill Clinton does not have the strength nor the character to be president of the United States. . . . You need to have a president you can trust. Can you really trust Bill Clinton?"

It was too bad, really, because Quayle and Gore embody some of the most fundamental differences in American politics and both of them may be running for president in coming years. A real discussion might have been useful.

They have different philosophies about protecting the environment. Gore believes radical changes are needed to protect the planet, while Quayle fears extremism will unduly burden business. They disagree about a woman's right to abortion and have different plans for health care. They're both interested in creating more jobs, improving the inner cities and making sensible defense cuts without leaving American vulnerable.

But it was more like this: Gore accused Quayle of waffling on the abortion issue. The Republican platform calls for a constitutional ban on abortion but Quayle talks as if a waiting period and parental notification would be okay.

"Talk about waffling around!" Quayle countered. "This issue is a very important issue. The one thing I don't think it's wise to do, and that is to change your position."

Gore, he said, used to be anti-abortion during his early days in Congress.

"That's simply not true," Gore said.

Yes! said Quayle. There's a 1977 letter in which Gore said he opposed taxpayer-funded abortion.

GORE: "In some circumstances . . ."

QUAYLE: "Oh, you're gonna qualify it now?"

GORE: ". . . and I still do."

QUAYLE: "This is typical of the Clinton response. Let's take the NAFTA issue. . . ."

GORE: "It's going to be a long night if you're like this."

It was. It was.

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