Dan Quayle wandered, got lost at times, and what will be replayed and remembered of this debate is that Lloyd Bentsen told Quayle: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But somehow, suggested the instant analysts on TV, the campaign operatives and politicians sent out Wednesday night to offer a verdict on the vice presidential debate, this performance might have been good enough to help the Republican ticket.
Meanwhile, the first post-debate poll suggested Americans overwhelmingly thought Democratic Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen had bettered Indiana Sen. Quayle in the debate, and some Americans may even have moved toward the Democratic ticket.
Because nearly half of all voters don’t watch debates, and many of those who do are uncertain what to make of them, the early feedback--this mixture of which sound bites are replayed, what the instant analysis is and what the early polls indicate--can become an important part of what Americans eventually think of the debate, a consensus that often takes days to crystallize.
And initial indications Wednesday night suggest that for Quayle, losing may have been good enough.
The Kennedy Moment
“The moment everyone is going to remember about this debate is that moment when Dan Quayle was waxing eloquent about comparisons between himself and John Kennedy, and Lloyd Bentsen said, ‘Just a minute here, cut it out. You’re not John Kennedy,’ ” said CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer. “How does that play? I’m not sure. . . . My instant analysis is that Bentsen zinged him.”
Several network analysts also thought Quayle at times seemed lost. “What would he do if he got to be President?” said NBC’s John Chancellor. “He said by then he would know much of the Cabinet on a first-name basis.”
When discussing America’s slide from a creditor to a debtor nation, noted CBS’ Bruce Morton, Quayle started talking about debt forgiveness, seemingly implying that Japan would forgive American debt. “I’m sure that’s not what he meant to say,” said Morton.
At the same time, expectations in the media apparently were so low that several analysts guessed that this performance may have been enough for people. “If you were undecided, you may feel Dan Quayle is not a helpless lightweight,” Chancellor said.
In perhaps a moment of unintended candor, former Texas Gov. John B. Connally said of Quayle: “Expectations were quite low, and I think he lived up to those expectations.”
Analysis May Change
Typically, analysts consider the debate closer this first night than they may later. In last week’s presidential debate, for instance, the instant analysts and spin doctors considered the contest a draw, while a few days later Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was considered the winner.
On Wednesday night, the spin doctors sent out by the various campaigns typically declared victory for both:
“It was so one-sided,” said Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, interviewed on Cable News Network, in praise of Bentsen.
“We like what we saw,” said George Bush’s campaign chairman James A. Baker III on CNN of his man Quayle.
But perhaps the most interesting element was that both sides seemed moderate in their claims at times, a suggestion that perhaps neither was entirely pleased.
‘Both Left Standing’
Democratic analyst Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio), for instance, said on NBC that “Both guys were left standing . . . and both could claim victory.”
Republican consultant David Keene, under contract with CBS, said Quayle went “80 to 90% of the way to remove himself as a negative force” in the campaign. Now, he said, Quayle is “not someone people will automatically laugh at.”
Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming even described Quayle as sometimes “rather confused” and “overprogrammed.”
And Quayle adviser Stuart K. Spencer criticized the panel of questioners as “unfair” in asking Quayle “over and over” what he would do if he became President, while never once asking Bentsen--a spin that raised media speculation that Spencer was somewhat defensive about the debate.
But some Republicans were able to argue on network television that anything less than a clear knockout for Bentsen was a defeat:
Says It Wasn’t Close
“The expectation was that Bentsen would put Quayle away, and he didn’t even come close,” Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico said on NBC.
And Quayle adviser Richard Bond, adhering to Quayle’s apparent strategy during the debate, tried to make it seem as if the issue was not out-debating Lloyd Bentsen, but just out-performing Michael Dukakis:
“We think Mike Dukakis lost the debate tonight. Why? Because Lloyd Bentsen refused to protect him.”
Staff writers William J. Eaton and William C. Rempel in Washington contributed to this story.