There was less hemming and hawing than on earlier evenings and less rhetoric on television from the campaign “spin doctors.”
But the initial call by the referees--the instant analysts on network television in the moments after the second presidential debate Thursday night--declared Republican George Bush the winner for the simple reason that Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, the apparent underdog, needed, depending on which network one watched, “a home run,” to “jar something loose” or “the long ball,” and he didn’t get it.
The first instant media poll, offered by ABC 20 minutes after the debate ended, agreed, showing Bush the winner, 49% to 33%.
But voters interviewed on television seemed less certain. Panels of voters gathered by NBC and CBS both called the debate a draw, and they didn’t seem to care particularly about what it was tactically that Dukakis might need.
“Since not much happened,” said CBS’ Bob Schieffer, sounding as if he had just escaped a deadly party, “and since George Bush is ahead (in the polls), I guess he’ll be declared the winner.”
The first media reactions, from polls, analysts and the sound bites that are replayed on television, are generally considered crucial in deciding how the public ultimately views debates. This is because more than half of all voters don’t watch and many of those who do are uncertain what to think, so the media echo often makes more of an impression on voters than the debate itself.
The sense among network analysts was that this was an event so lacking in substance or drama that it immediately vanished into the sea of expectations.
What mattered most to the journalists was that the inning is late, the score lopsided and 26 days remain to Election Day.
“Somehow there had to be a long ball thrown here tonight,” ABC’s Sam Donaldson said, “and I don’t think it was.”
If that is true, the panel of media questioners may unwittingly have played into George Bush’s strategy. ABC correspondent Ann Compton, one of the debate panelists, noted that the panel members had decided beforehand not to be overly confrontational in their questions so as “not to make heat.”
Notable for their absence at least on network television, too, were the spin doctors, those campaign operatives who offer themselves to tell reporters how to interpret what they have just seen. In both the first presidential and the vice presidential debate, they were given considerable time on the networks to offer their wares.
On Thursday night, only NBC nibbled, inviting Democrat Jesse Jackson and Republican Rep. Jack Kemp, and even they seemed moderated in their tones.
Kemp echoed the network voices, calling Bush the winner only when seen via tactics. “On political points, George Bush definitely won. Dukakis . . . needed a home run. He didn’t get it.”
Jackson wouldn’t even go so far as to call his man victorious, a sure sign in the between-the-lines where truth might lie that your side is not bullish. Said Jackson of Dukakis: “He did fine.”
Correspondents on all three networks suggested that if Dukakis came away with less from the debate, it may not have been his fault as much as that of his strategy--that, according to the correspondents, of wanting to appear likable.
“Dukakis wanted to ‘go positive,’ ” said Chris Wallace of NBC. “The question I have is whether it was the right strategy.”
“I didn’t really divine a game plan in Michael Dukakis,” NBC’s Ken Bode said.
Only NBC went so far as to declare Bush a winner on his own steam. “I thought George Bush was the better performer,” John Chancellor said.
ABC’s Jeff Greenfield went so far only as to call Bush “a confident fellow tonight.” NBC’s Lisa Myers agreed, describing the vice president as more relaxed and confident than she had seen him than at any other time during the campaign.
Dukakis also seemed to lose the immediate post-debate imagery. He hurried off the stage to a rally, leaving the stage alone to Bush to drink in applause and kudos from supporters. NBC and CBS had it on camera, and ABC mentioned it when a roar from the crowd forced anchor Peter Jennings to turn around in wonder and then comment on it on camera.