No big surprises emerged in Wednesday night's vice presidential debate between Sen. Dan Quayle and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, but simply because he avoided any political pratfalls, Quayle probably came away the real winner.
At its most basic, this debate was less a confrontation between the two vice presidential nominees and more of a showcase for the 41-year-old Quayle and whether he deserved to be a legitimate partner on the GOP ticket.Most political analysts felt before the debate that if Quayle simply could avoid a serious stumble, he would lay to rest the doubts that much of the American public had about his qualifications.
While the junior senator from Indiana did not demonstrate any noticeable superiority over Bentsen, he held up his end of the speech-making and did not appear to damage himself or his party.
Most of the questions aimed at Quayle dealt with his relative youth and his fitness to be president, but those issues undoubtedly were expected and he fielded them reasonably smoothly.
The only sharp, unrehearsed point in the debate came when Quayle, answering one of the repeated questions about his qualifications, said that he had as much experience in Congress as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for the presidency.
This brought a sharp rebuke from Bentson, who said he had worked with the late president and knew him well. "Your're no Jack Kennedy," he snapped. "That was uncalled for," Quayle replied.
In truth, it was misleading. Quayle obviously wasn't saying he was a Jack Kennedy, but only that he had as many years in Congress as Kennedy had when the young senator sought the presidency in 1960.
Bentsen's qualifications as vice president have never been an issue. Most of the questions aimed at the 67-year-old Texan focused instead on his many differences with the political views of Gov. Michael Dukakis, his own presidential running mate.
Bentsen admitted such differences, but quickly brushed them aside, turning his comments to Republican versus Democratic issues, rather than Bentsen versus Dukakis issues.
During the debate, which ranged mostly over domestic issues such as the environment, farm programs, Social Security, and campaign reform, there was a clear difference in style.
Quayle did not try to appear older by being restrained and measured in his responses. Instead he tended to be youthfully exuberant and aggressive. He faltered only once when he answered a question about U.S. debt with comments about Third World debt and some in the audience tittered. But the minor slip did not appear to hurt him.
Quayle generally did not attack Bentsen, but thrust most of his criticisms at Dukakis and his record in Massachusetts.
Bentsen, by contrast, was calm, even grandfatherly, perhaps seeking to emphasize the age difference between him and his opponent. His responses were typical Democratic criticism of the Reagan administration, the federal deficit, and the trade deficit, while generally avoiding any mention of Reagan by name.
In sum, Quayle avoided any disaster, and while he may not have won over a lot of skeptical voters, he probably made them less uneasy. In the dead heat of the presidential race, that may be as good as a victory.