Democrat Lloyd Bentsen exuberantly pointed Thursday to polls suggesting he'd won his debate with Republican Dan Quayle, while Quayle focused on running mate George Bush, declaring him "still way ahead" in the presidential race.
Bush did not mention the debate as he gave an anti-crime speech Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. Afterward, when asked about Wednesday night's encounter, he said Quayle "did an outstanding job and the American people know it."The Democratic standard-bearer, Michael Dukakis, pronounced the debate "a real plus for us." He said Thursday that Quayle was "programmed beyond belief" while Bentsen was "knowledgeable and relaxed."
Bentsen, heading to Texas where he was to join Dukakis, noted that a flash ABC News poll had found viewers declaring him the winner, by 51 percent to 27 percent; that the same survey had shown a gain of three percentage points for Dukakis in the presidential race, putting him and Bush in a virtual tie, and that a panel of debate judges who scored the debate for The Associated Press had unanimously said Bentsen won.
"Gee, those polls were great, weren't they. I was just delighted," he said.
Quayle, who spoke to reporters as he left a rally at his hotel in Omaha, said he was unconcerned about the poll. "George Bush is going to win the election. He's still way ahead in the polls," Quayle said.
Bentsen, asked Thursday about an exchange over the late President John F. Kennedy, said, "What happened there was Quayle kept comparing himself to Kennedy, and he overreached himself, and I got fed up with it."
The Texas senator said Kennedy was a war hero and had run a nationwide campaign before being nominated for the presidency. He said of Quayle, "Sure, as friend of Jack Kennedy I deeply resented his trying to put Kennedy's mantle over himself when he didn't have a record that compared with Kennedy."
Democrats hoped the debate had dramatized their contention that Quayle was too inexperienced to step into the presidency on a moment's notice.
In a 90-minute meeting where neither candidate made any big mistakes, the most electric moment came when the boyish-looking, 41-year-old Quayle was defending his qualifications and said he had as much experience as Kennedy had had when he sought the presidency. It was a comparison he has made often.
Bentsen shot back, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
With an icy stare, Quayle interrupted to say, "That was really uncalled for, senator." Bentsen replied, "You are the one that was making the comparison, senator . . . and I'm the one who knew him well."
After the debate, Dukakis seized on the question of competence, telling a Boston rally, "The most important qualification for the vice president is that he's ready at a moment's notice to assume the presidency of the United States. Tonight Lloyd Bentsen demonstrated that he was the only one on that stage who's ready."
In Fort Worth, Texas, Vice President Bush said Quayle hit a "home run" right from the start of the debate and wasn't fazed by the questions about his fitness.
Bush said that Quayle "under tremendous pressure . . . came through with flying colors. Now people can see what I've seen all along."
With just 33 days remaining before the election, Bentsen was teaming up with Dukakis Thursday at a rally in Longview, Texas. Quayle was heading for stops in Missouri, Florida and Tennesse, while Bush campaigned separately in Texas and Arkansas.
The third and final debate of the campaign will be held late next week in Los Angeles when Dukakis and Bush square off for the second time.
In a presidential race that is virtually a tossup at this point, polls indicate that Quayle is costing Bush support, with many voters uneasy about his readiness for high office.
It was the first question put to Quayle on Wednesday night, and he replied, "I have more experience than others that have sought the office of vice president." He said that on national security, arms control, education, jobs and the deficit, "I have more experience than does the governor of Massachusetts."
The 67-year-old Bentsen was never challenged on his qualifications, but he pointed out that he had served in combat, was a businessman and a farmer as well as a senator.
"What we are looking at today is trying to judge once again the breadth of experience and the maturity of someone taking on this kind of a task," Bentsen said.
Bentsen accused the Republicans of attempting to slash Social Security and said Quayle voted eight times to cut benefits. Quayle accused him of distorting the record and said the Democrats were trying "to scare the older people of this country."
Bentsen said the Reagan administration had appointed environmental officials who were the equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde. Quayle said Dukakis had allowed an environmental problem to fester in Boston Harbor.
Bentsen assailed Quayle on his rec-ord on veterans' issues. He said his rival had sponsored legislation to tax the combat pay and disability pay for "people who are lying in the hospital." Quayle did not reply.
Quayle criticized Bentsen, the chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, for setting up a breakfast club for lobbyists willing to pay $10,000 in campaign contributions. "I'm sure they weren't paying to have cornflakes," Quayle said.
Bentsen said there was nothing illegal in what he did, but said the breakfast club was a "doozy" of a mistake. He said Quayle has collected "over a quarter of a million dollars" in honoraria, much of it from special interest groups, and that Quayle could spend the money on golf club dues if he wants.
An ABC News poll conducted immediately after the debate found Bentsen the winner over Quayle, 51 percent to 27 percent. The 637 voters polled favored Bush over Dukakis by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent before the debate, and by a margin of 50 percent to 48 afterward. The margin of error was 4.5 percent.
All six debate judges who scored the contest for The Associated Press picked Bentsen as the winner. (Story below.)