Real Loser in Al Gore vs. Ross Perot: Larry King : Television: The giant sucking sound you heard was not Mexico drawing away U.S. jobs. It was the debaters having their passive host for dinner.

Ross Perot vs. Vice President Al Gore: The not-so-great, great debate in NAFTA-fying detail.

Early public-opinion polls favored Gore, and so did much of the post-debate analysis, a fact likely to bring new claims from Perot that the major media are conspiring to undermine him, and by extension the interests of the entire nation.

The thumbs up/thumbs down crowd queued up after Tuesday night's debate between Gore and Perot on CNN's "Larry King Live" concerning the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement that is being pushed by the Clinton Administration.

"I think Gore was calm, cool, collected," political analyst William Schneider said on CNN immediately afterward. "His arguments were simpler, they were cleaner, and for the most part he was able to be aggressive with Perot without showing his aggression."

CNN's Bruce Morton saw an aggressively "mean-spirited" Perot, who argued against approving the agreement.

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Gore "clearly carried the night," commentator Bill Press, who heads California's Democratic Party, declared on KCOP-TV Channel 13. Gore did "very, very well," political analyst Joe Cerrell said on KNBC-TV Channel 4's late news. Gore won "hands down," Labor Secretary Robert Reich said on ABC's "Nightline."

The goring of Perot continued Wednesday. The vice president had Perot "on the ropes most of the night," NBC reporter Jim Miklaszewski said on "Today." That verdict was echoed later on "Today" by the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt and NBC's Lisa Myers and Tim Russert.

Gore gave his own spin to interviewers on Wednesday's network morning shows, as did Perot on "CBS This Morning"--that is, when he could get co-host Harry Smith to "stop interrupting me." Et tu, Harry? A demagogue's lot is a hard one.

Given the subjectivity involved, picking "winners" of televised political debates is one of the more foolish things that the media do. Who won Tuesday night's event is obviously in the eye of the beholder, and you won't find an answer here. It was obvious who lost, though.

Larry King.

King is undoubtedly TV's Switzerland of talk-show hosts, an interviewer who can always be trusted to be neutral with his topical guests regardless of his own beliefs. Very admirable. Yet he is absolutely the wrong person to moderate a loosely formatted, predictably volatile debate, whether the topic is free trade or Freemasons. He's just too passive.

Consequently, the giant sucking sound you heard Tuesday was not Mexico drawing away U.S. jobs. It was Gore and Perot having Larry King for dinner.

Although separated from Gore and Perot by only a yard of table, King was virtually an absentee moderator. Fifteen minutes into the debate, it was already out of control, a chaotic, cross-firing Bosnia of the airwaves, with King the helpless, ducking onlooker.

He appeared absolutely cowed by Perot, whose appearances on "Larry King Live" during the 1992 election campaign helped make King one of the political season's big winners, along with Bill Clinton. At one point Tuesday night, for example, King could be heard uttering a weak "please" in trying to get Perot to end one of his rambling diatribes. Perot ignored him.

And when it came to Gore, the following exchange typified King's inability to curtail the vice president's own runaway monologues:

King: "But . . . but. . . ."

Gore: "Let me finish, Larry, let me finish, because this is very important. . . ."

King: Silence.

Each time Gore used the word important to justify continuing, King backed off.

Well, it figured. As a talk show that draws nourishment from the mother's milk of good will--an amiable atmosphere encouraging return visits by celebrities--"Larry King Live" cannot afford to offend any of its big-name guests. Thus, getting tough with Gore and Perot might have been problematic for King, who several times called Perot "Ross" and at one point addressed the vice president as "Al." It was obvious that King was much cozier with each of them than they were with each other.

As many have noted, however, what does it all matter?

And as for who won, what exactly did winning mean? It wasn't Gore and Perot as personalities that viewers should have been noticing as much as it was what they were saying--and not saying--about this complicated trade proposal. And although once again we saw the politics of the nation being played out via television, Tuesday night's debate "was not for the American people," NBC's Russert observed. "It was for the 30 undecided Democrats."

Those undecided Democrats (their exact number is in dispute) are said to hold the fate of NAFTA in their hands, and if Tuesday night's carnival helped them make up their minds, then pity their constituents.

"Nightline" host Ted Koppel said Tuesday that his show would have jumped at the opportunity to host the Gore-Perot debate, although adding that events "of this sort are probably not worth the effort to put them on."

Not agreeing, apparently, were the non-cable CNN affiliates that carried the debate live, despite having to preempt regular programming during a ratings sweeps month. CNN made the debate available to all of its affiliates in addition to National Public Radio, and the network said that among 50 stations accepting the offer were ones in Chicago, San Francisco and San Diego. But not in the Los Angeles-area market, CNN said, so that non-cable viewers here were denied the opportunity to see the debate.

Instead, CNN affiliates in Los Angeles ran their regular programming from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. On KTLA-TV Channel 5 it was a rerun of "Full House" and back-to-back reruns of "Family Matters." On KCAL-TV Channel 9 it was a rerun of "Empty Nest," then local news followed by an "Inside Edition" segment on serial killer David Berkowitz. On KTTV-TV Channel 11 it was "Cops" sandwiched between reruns of "Married . . . With Children."

Television's version of free trade.

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