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Bush may be out for blood tonight

Expect some blood tonight as the presidential candidates debate a second time.

President Bush arrives about 15 points down in the polls to Bill Clinton, and the election is only 19 days away. If the president is to win the election, he needs to dust things up a bit.

Tonight's format is a little different. Carole Simpson of ABC will moderate, taking questions from 250 undecided voters in the audience.

The debate will last 90 minutes, beginning at 9 in Richmond, Va. It is not likely to have the boys-on-the-playground atmosphere of the vice presidential brawl Tuesday because each questioner will probably touch on a different topic. Instead of real give-and-take, this will tend to bring out the stock speeches and sound-bite answers the candidates can give in their sleep by now. However, it could get interesting if the other two interrupt as one is spouting the sound bite.

Don't anticipate any new direction from the three tonight. Look for Bush to attack Clinton's character. Expect Clinton to keep focusing on the economy. Watch for Ross Perot to hammer on the deficit and those guys in Washington.

But time's getting short for Bush and Perot. Bush needs to draw blood, even if that's unseemly for a president. Perot needs to overcome the performance by his vice presidential candidate in Tuesday's debate and keep his polls climbing.

Perot, who seemed to many to win the debate Sunday on the basis of verve, wit and homespun charm, has been on a roll in the polls ever since, going from 8 percent to 12 percent and making more people feel less negative about him.

But he has been wounded by the job his running mate, retired Adm. James Stockdale, did in the vice presidential debate. Despite a few good zingers ("I feel like an observer at a ping-pong game"), Stockdale was ill at ease, seemed to lose his train of thought and was devoid of facts or insight, sometimes not bothering to answer questions. It made some people worry that a Perot administration could be made up of people Perot likes but who are incompetent for government service.

Clinton and Bush may also have at Perot tonight. NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters Peter Hart and Vince Broglio said Perot could again emerge as a major force in the election, and Bush and Clinton "may decide to take a harder line" with Perot as a result.

The most recent Gallup poll shows Clinton at 48 percent, Bush at 33 and Perot at 12 _ or a 15-point gap for Bush.

"No one has closed that large a gap and come back to win in the history of the poll," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll.

In the famous 1948 election that Bush likes to cite as his own model of a come-from-behind victory, Harry Truman was just 5 points down in mid-October.

"Is it possible for Bush to stage a comeback?" Newport said. "It's not out of the question that the gap could be closed, but it would be a new record."

The Republican party view, repeated Wednesday with different degrees of enthusiasm: Bush should follow Quayle's example and step up his attack on Clinton's character and trustworthiness.

In Tuesday's vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle repeatedly suggested that Clinton was incapable of telling the truth.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas said Quayle's approach puts new focus on Clinton's character and turns on "some light at the end of the tunnel" when "it had looked like the lights were out."

Millions of Americans tuned in to that debate, even though it started when many potential viewers were still at work or commuting. Coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC was watched in 34.9 percent of the nation's 93.1-million television households, according to figures released by A.C. Nielsen Co.

On Wednesday, all three presidential candidates were mostly silent preparing for tonight's debate. But their campaigns were not.

"What you saw last night is only the beginning. We've only begun to fight," Quayle told a rally of about 2,000 at Auburn University in Alabama on Wednesday.

Later, Bush welcomed him back to the White House. "I'll try my hardest to do as well he did," the president said. "He was first class."

The Quayle team felt he had vindicated himself from four years of bad press as a bumbling embarrassment for the Bush administration.

"I gave Sen. Gore every opportunity to say something good about Bill Clinton," Quayle told the Auburn crowd before joking: "You know what the rumor is? . . . That Bill Clinton called Sen. Gore after the debate and said, "Nice job on the debate but couldn't you have said one thing nice about me?' "

Gore, who made the rounds of the morning shows, said Quayle's charges on truth-telling had been so shrill they did not merit a direct answer.

He went on to step up his attacks on the Bush administration, suggesting that a probe into FBI Director William Sessions could be politically motivated.

Calling Sessions a man of integrity, Gore told a lunchtime rally in Pittsburgh that reports of the Justice Department investigation of Sessions came the day after Sessions assured Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, D-Okla., that the FBI would look into whether members of the Justice Department concealed evidence in a case involving bank loans to Iraq.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service, Cox News Service, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters was used in this report.