After the first presidential debate in Hartford, CT, between President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole, The NewsHour's regular political analysts, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journalist columnist Paul Gigot give their impressions of each candidate's performance.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The first presidential debate of 1996 is over, and we begin our look at it with some political analysis from Shields & Gigot. Thats syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, what are your general impressions?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I was struck by the extent to which both men played to their strengths and to type. I thought the President proved hes the better talker. He stuck to his script. It was--it was almost reading sections, big chunks of his acceptance speech, repeating his record time and again, time and again, trying to remain presidential.
I think Bob Dole--his best--what his best emphasis in the evening was he proved his warmth in some of his wit. He proved his sense of humor. He proved that hes really a very funny man. And he hasnt been able to project that. And he managed to do that tonight, and to do it on the best line when he said, "falling off the stage at Chico," when the trial lawyer was on the cell phone to me, I thought, that was the best line of the evening, frankly. He proved his warmth, I think, and his humanness. Theres been a sense a lot of people have had that he hasnt been able to connect at all as a human being, and I thought he did that tonight.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mark, what about--what are your general impressions? MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think that the President had to defend his record. Any campaign for reelection is a referendum on the incumbent. And I thought he did that. I thought Bob Dole had two tasks tonight. He had to demonstrate a sense of humor and a sense of passion, and I thought he did. I think Pauls absolutely right. I thought his old line about Ted Kennedy, let me tax your memory, he said to his Senate colleagues, and Ted Kennedy jumped up and said, gee, why didnt I think of that, and that, I thought that was good, but I thought, thought there was. It was--Bob Dole has been under wraps in this campaign.
But the second part was he had to deliver the punch to Bill Clinton. He had to buckle his knees. He had to knock him down. He didnt. Bill Clinton had not been in a debate since 1992. He was a little rusty, and admittedly so, but I think that Dole went after him without being mean. A couple of times he got close to the edge, the mention of drugs in your family, and Im not going to talk about drugs in your own background sort of thing. But there wasnt--it wasnt the Bob Dole of 1976 and Walter Mondale and Democrat wars and 500,000 Americans dying. And I thought that Bill Clinton showed he could take a punch, uh, that Bob Dole did not rattle him, that he continued--Bob Dole needed a breakthrough tonight, he did a good job of selling himself. He did not do an effective job, in my judgment, of making the case against Bill Clinton in a way that was going to sway millions of voters.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: No knock down punch, Paul, what do you think?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that there were a couple of standing eight counts, uh, particularly on taxes, I thought he drove that message home. What he was trying to do was not just make the case for his own tax cut but also to say you can trust me, you cant trust the President and try to contrast the record. I thought he did that on taxes. He did it--I thought he did it on the pardons issue because I think what you saw with the President, Bob Dole was trying to do, was pin him down and say, will you please make a pledge that you will not pardon people, and the President flatly refused. And he said, I am not going to make any commitment, is essentially what he said. I dont know that Bob Dole did it as much as he should have. He could have on a few other issues--partial birth abortions, for example, which has a big appeal to Catholic voters. He didnt even bring up welfare, which I thought was a big surprise, the fact that the President signed the bill, but has now been pledging hes going to change it in the next four years. I thought he could have done more, as Mark said, on that point.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mark, you said Friday you thought that Bob Dole would have to be the underdog but not the loser in this. Do you think he achieved that?
MARK SHIELDS: He had to come out that way. I think he came out of it a more appealing figure certainly than when he went in, a warmer figure, a more likeable figure. But it was fascinating, the key to this whole debate tonight was which years they were debating. All right, Bob Dole wanted the whole focus to be on 1993-1994. He talked about surgeon general -- thats Joycelyn Elders, whos long gone from Washington; Somalia; stimulus package; the health; the Clinton health care package; the BTU tax; the tax increase. It was all 1993-94. And Bill Clinton wanted to talk about 1996 and 1997 and beyond. Clinton wanted to talk, and he did, about--made the case, I thought, against the excesses of a Republican Congress, bridge to the future, Dole-Gingrich, how he had saved the country from the terrible wrath and all the rest. So I thought in that sense it was intriguing. Dole wanted it to be 1993-94, didnt want 95-96 discussed much. And Clinton obviously didnt want to talk much about 1993-94, and I thought effectively focused it on 96-97.