Neither George Bush nor Michael S. Dukakis is known for sparkling wit, but both candidates came into Sunday's debate carefully primed with a handful of new gags--mindful, perhaps, of the way Ronald Reagan won debates in 1980 and 1984 by coming up with the right quip at the right time.
Dukakis fired first, deriding Bush for promising to cut the federal deficit without reducing military spending or raising taxes.
"If he keeps this up, he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics," Dukakis said, referring to the wildly deceptive auto salesman of television commercials.
"Is this the time to unleash our one-liners?" Bush asked. Then he shot back: "That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor," recalling his attacks on Dukakis' environmental record as governor of Massachusetts.
Bush also displayed a new ease in the use of self-deprecating humor. He poked fun at himself for his gaffe earlier this month, when he spoke of Sept. 7 as Pearl Harbor Day, actually Dec. 7. When the vice president got tangled up in one of his own answers on arms control--"the Midgetman missile, or the Minuteman, whatever it is"--he stopped, grinned, and said: "It's Christmas!"
The audience roared.
Later on, though, Dukakis tossed the line back.
When Bush lost his train of thought in a mix-up over timing, the Republican candidate asked plaintively: "Where was I?"
"The 25th of December, Mr. Vice President," Dukakis said acidly.
Still, Bush got the last laugh, deriding the Democrat's recent photo session at a U.S. Army testing ground.
"I had hoped this had been a little friendlier evening," Bush said with a wry smile. "I'd wanted to hitchhike a ride home in his tank."