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Debate Tonight Could Be a Key Event of Race

Times Political Writer

“It’s a very important debate,” says Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich of tonight’s televised confrontation between vice presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. “It’s really the second presidential debate.”

But Lee Atwater, Republican George Bush’s campaign manager, views it differently. “I can’t see in my mind’s eye a situation in which the vice presidential debate has that much to do with who people vote for for President in November,” he said.

The determination of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis’ campaign to maximize the importance of the debate, while Bush aides seek to do the opposite, reflects both a yearning by Democrats for an event that can ignite their presidential quest and Republican misgivings about Quayle’s abilities.

Many Republicans fear that a poor performance by Quayle tonight in Omaha could hurt Bush’s front-running candidacy, perhaps even “turn the election” into a Democratic victory, as one Bush adviser suggested.

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But some Democrats worry that, unless Quayle flops tonight on a grand scale or Bush later commits some egregious blunder, Dukakis may have a hard time regaining the campaign initiative.

“If there is going to be a big development in the campaign, it’s going to come from the Bentsen-Quayle debate,” said Democratic pollster Ed Lazarus, who, like other Democrats, concedes that the first presidential debate last week has so far failed to give Dukakis’ candidacy the boost it needs.

Consequences of a Gaffe Cited

Lazarus contends that, if Quayle commits some big gaffe in the vice presidential debate, it will underline two questions the Dukakis campaign is trying to raise in voters’ minds.

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One is what would happen to the country if Quayle became President and the other is what does the choice of this alleged second-rater as a running mate indicate about Bush’s judgment.

To be sure, the Democrats may be in for a rude surprise from Quayle. Instead of being the clay pigeon they expect, the embattled young senator could turn into a tough bird.

After all, he did well enough in his 1980 campaign debates to make Democrat Birch Bayh an ex-senator.

Did Well in TV Encounter

And, in a previous encounter with Bentsen, last April on the MacNeil-Lehrer public television news show, Quayle at least held his own in an argument over plant-closing legislation, neutral witnesses said.

Quayle, stung by the scorn and ridicule heaped on him since his nomination, appears to view the debate as a chance for vindication and has been boning up assiduously.

“What we do is go through the issues, go back through my record--I have some 6,000 votes that could be brought up--establish the record of the governor of Massachusetts, formulate ideas, kick issues back and forth, try to anticipate what the questions are going to be,” he explained.

Bentsen, of course, is drilling with equal intensity.

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But some Republicans argue that the public’s expectations for Quayle are so low, as a result of the sustained criticism he has received, that even a mediocre performance will win him a passing grade.

If that happens, GOP consultant David Keene said, “that would take the Quayle issue away from the Democrats.”

Bentsen Faces Handicap

Indeed, even Democrats concede that the low expectations and the tightly structured format of the debate will make it difficult for Bentsen to score a clear victory.

“Quayle will go in there with 15 or 20 automatic answers already prepared,” Jack Devore, Bentsen’s Senate press secretary, said. “It’s not going to be like the Perry Mason show, where the poor prosecutor just throws up his hands and concedes.”

But other analysts argue that, because of the standards voters set for the vice presidency, Quayle will have to do more than simply exceed low expectations for his debate performance. Those standards are derived not only from public awareness that vice presidents are presidential understudies but also from the realization, underlined by Bush’s own candidacy, that the understudy’s office often is a launching pad for the White House.

“It would be very possible for Quayle to exceed the low expectations voters have for him and not pass the threshold he has to reach to assure people he is qualified to be vice president,” said University of Texas debate specialist Kathleen Jamieson.

Some See Quayle Flunking

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And some Democrats hold Quayle in such low regard that they are confident he will flunk this test.

“It will be a positive statement about the Dukakis candidacy just to have those two guys (Quayle and Bentsen) on stage together,” said Democratic pollster Ed Reilly, part of the team that has been helping Bentsen prepare.

Judging from the polls, Quayle certainly has got a lot of ground to make up against Bentsen.

A Gallup survey taken last week showed that, if voters could cast ballots separately for vice president, Bentsen would win over Quayle by a margin of 49% to 34%. Only 34% of those interviewed thought Quayle qualified to serve as President; twice as many voters said they considered Bentsen qualified to be chief executive.

Quayle’s handlers hope to deal with that situation by making Quayle’s principal target not Bentsen but Dukakis. “He is going to do what he has been doing all along--attack Dukakis,” Quayle’s press secretary, David Prosperi, said.

Similarities Cited

Specifically, the Quayle strategy appears to be to use Bentsen as a foil in the assault on his running mate. Bentsen and Quayle have voted alike on a number of issues--such as the Reagan tax cuts, military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, funding for the MX missile and the death penalty for drug-related murders--on which Bentsen appears to be on the opposite side from his running mate.

White House pollster Richard B. Wirthlin suggests that Quayle say at some point: “ ‘You know, I agree with you, Sen. Bentsen,’ and go down that litany of conservative positions that Bentsen has taken, and then simply state the fact: ‘The differences that appear aren’t differences between you and me, Sen. Bentsen, but differences between you and Dukakis.’ ”

In tactical terms, Bentsen appears to have a harder task than Quayle. The structure of the debate, in which the candidates are not supposed to question each other, makes it hard for him to attack Quayle directly, and, in any case, doing so might well make Bentsen seem too harsh and mean.

Staff writers Karen Tumulty and John Balzar contributed to this story.


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