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Clinton's victory was in not losing

"You have attacked my patriotism," counterpunched Bill Clinton, in the most dramatic moment of the first presidential debate of 1992.

President Bush had carefully said that Clinton's organizing anti-war demonstrations abroad as a youth was "a question of character and judgment," and claimed not to be impugning his patriotism.

Clinton was well prepared. He defined the president's attack as a low blow, and delivered the cry of foul he had rehearsed: "When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, 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."

Later, Bush had a chance to stand his ground: "I didn't question the man's patriotism. I questioned his judgment and character. .


. What I don't accept is demonstrating and organizing demonstrations in a foreign country when your country's at war."

That was the president's main shot at his challenger, and he kept at it, and will surely press the charge in the weeks remaining. But it wasn't a knockout blow; it was neatly blocked and countered.

A debate's result is defined by such moments and by general impressions. Another memorable moment, to me, went by in a flash: It was the president, responding to a question about continuing to keep 150,000 troops in Europe, suggesting that "if you throw another 50,000 kids on the street because of cutting recklessly in troop levels, you're going to put a lot more out of work."

Are we really keeping forces in uniform to keep them at work? Has the Defense Department really become a giant WPA? That's been the level of the Bush-Baker campaign, and it upsets conservatives; had Clinton made such a remark, it would have been a much-derided gaffe.

The president had a bit of news to break: He announced with pride that James Baker would "be kind of the economic coordinator of all the domestic side, and that includes all the economic side, all the training side, and bring the program together" in his next term.

That was curious; only six days ago, the president told interviewer Larry King that James Baker would be returning to the State Department after the campaign. Apparently that turned some people off, or Bush felt he needed to offer some proof that he was serious about getting the domestic side organized next time. That switch shows the desperation, or the realism, of the president.

Clinton is probably pleased at the way he wove his drug-busted brother and various other real people into his answers; that is supposed to show he's warm and human. Some people go for that; its calculation strikes me as the essence of slickness.

That is not to knock handlers as a breed; good Clinton rehearsals blunted the Moscow attack, and Ed Rollins, the coach scorned by Perot, must have had a good laugh at the way the billionaire wasted his summation by not looking at the camera, thereby not looking the American people in the eye.

I won't trouble the reader with issue-by-issue analysis, because that's not what decides debates. Cut to the chase: Who won?

General impression: Bush was the most comfortable under pressure, more in command of his weaker material, fortunate in not being asked about Iranian arms for hostages or his buildup of Saddam Hussein now mushrooming into Iraqgate.

Perot was an amusing sideshow, a jester ("I'm all ears") with some intelligent gibes ("I don't have any experience running up a $4-trillion debt"), whose ratings should climb because he was not seriously engaged by panel or opponents.

Clinton, not asked about the draft, was articulate and surprisingly concise; he has Kennedy's thumb and forefinger gesture down pat, but has neither the charm of Kennedy nor Bush's relaxed demeanor under pressure.

Clinton won because he did not lose. In boxing, the champ keeps the title if the decision is a draw; not so in politics. Bush lost because he did not win; he did not force his opponent into some exploitable gaffe.

It's not over yet, but if Bush cannot flatten the challenger in the next two matches, it's over.

New York Times News Service