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Perot stole the show in St. Louis

When, as rehearsed, Bill Clinton told George Bush that he is not the man his father was, the president made no reply.

Plainly Bush hadn't been programed for such a moment. Or maybe, in his heart of hearts, he agrees, and has all along.

The one-sided encounter was the one dramatic point in the first presidential debate. It occurred early on in the icy gym of Washington University, and all subsequent entertainment was provided by third man Ross Perot, who was proudly unprogramed and ostentatiously unrehearsed.

Bush was plainly nonplussed by Clinton's lunge at his jugular. So much that is happening to him in his last campaign is beyond his most somber imagining.

Why, people ask, doesn't his coach, James Baker, counsel the president to go gently into the good night that awaits politicians who cannot budge a 15 percent deficit in October polls? How could Baker encourage his old friend to end his political career with an alliance with a scoundrel? The mad-dog rhetoric and occasional fisticuffs of Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., have made him a bad joke in the House.

Bush's late father, Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut _ who, as Clinton remarked, "had stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy" _ would not have let Dornan in by the service entrance. Bush had Dornan to the Oval Office and bought his tawdry ways, as well as his innuendoes about Clinton's trip to Moscow while a student at Oxford and his anti-war protests overseas. The charges have diminished Bush, not Clinton.

As Bush declined to comment on his father _ he could at least have said, "How dare you" _ Clinton passed up the chance to defend himself and his generation on Vietnam. At one point he looked like a boy being lectured by two disapproving uncles. Both Bush and Perot dismissed that special anguish as a kind of mistake.

Perot forgave him on grounds of youth en route to zapping Bush for unspecified offenses as "a senior official in the federal government." Bush spoke of the possibility of "a youthful indiscretion," while comparing it unfavorably to his own World War II military service.

Clinton could have explained that his resistance was patriotic and principled, but he is not a romantic, nor is he eloquent. The oatmeal of public policy is his preferred dish. He doesn't feel he needs to explain, and that could be risky. Despite his colorful personal history, Clinton is, like Bush, a careful, dull politician. He presents himself as a boat-rocker but he doesn't want to rock the boat now.

Maybe someday he'll tell us how he felt in those bad times. It would say more about his character, possibly, than the anecdotesabout unfortunate members of his family he is continually proffering _ his battered mother and his drug-addicted brother.

The president, who a week before was accusing Clinton of "Clintonesia" _ weak knees, sweaty palms and worse _ treated the young governor familiarly, referring to and addressing him as "Bill."

Ross Perot, the evening's unexpected laugh riot, was a different proposition. Bush had hoped to treat him and Clinton as a pair of impostors, but Perot is as hard to harness as a porcupine. The president held out a hand to "Ross" and had it bitten. He cited "experience" as his distinguishing attribute, and Ross snapped back that he hadn't had "any experience in running up a $4-trillion debt."

The billionaire bemoaned the shameful treatment of Anita Hill, which was a great hit in the hall. Bush could not do it because he occasioned the affair by choosing Clarence Thomas, and Clinton couldn't join in because Democrats were among the senators Perot said "should hang their heads in shame."

Perot's promise to relegate lobbyists "with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes" to the Smithsonian was a smash. He said he was "all ears" for hearing a fair tax _ another sensation, because he is.

The debate may not have moved the action. Clinton did not lose it, Bush certainly did not win it, and Perot, who has no chance to be president, stole the show.

Universal Press Syndicate