Michael Dukakis came into our living rooms with two goals in mind.
First, he needed to be a Gila Monster. He needed to bite into his opponent George Bush and not let go. He needed to leave the Pauley Pavilion debate with a grip on the vice president so tight, so poisonous, that only the promise of another debate would dislodge him.Dukakis had a second mission: to appear congenial, to begin matching his rival in the "likability" race.
The Massachusetts governor obviously discovered the contradiction long before he arrived in Los Angeles. He could not play both Gila Monster and Mr. Congeniality in the same 90-minute session.
Realizing that, he tried to be a little of both, and he fell well short of both goals. He neither grabbed hold of his opponent nor did he emit the kind of personal luminescence we've come to expect from our national leaders in the age of Ronald Reagan.
George Bush's performance, on the other hand, showed a candidacy in full bloom. The vice president came into Thursday's debate having lost the first head-to-head encounter with Dukakis Sept. 25 and having seen his running mate, Dan Quayle, lose the second inter-party match of the season by a far more deadly margin.
Yet Bush displayed both strength and charm. His minimal objective was simply to end the evening without committing a blunder. He managed to go well beyond that.
He took one opportunity after another to paint his opponent as a "liberal." Over and over again, he invoked the term "values" to enunciate what he portrays as beneficial differences with his Democratic rival. He left the viewer with the impression that he has nothing against Dukakis personally; it's the man's public philosophy that concerns him.
Since Bush has earned a reputation for weak rhetorical execution, the debate performance verged on a tour de force, particularly in the early going.
But the real surprise of the evening was Michael Dukakis's failure to launch a damaging offense. His opening reference to the administration's failure to stop the Central American drug trade was feeble at worst, tired at best.
Given a clear shot at the Quayle nomination, his toughest punch was to remind the audiences that three vice presidents since World War II have succeeded to the presidency.
Where Dukakis managed to score was on issues where it would have been almost impossible for him to miss - Social Security, defense waste. Even here the attack lacked crackle.
It was not until the closing minutes of the debate that he made any significant mention of the country's deteriorating trade situation. Even then, he failed to exploit the kind of nationalistic sentiment that might have given some firepower to his words.
Like his running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Massachusetts governor seemed primarily concerned with protecting his reputation and record back home.
When a panelist asked him about the importance of "likability" in a presidential candidate, he detoured his remarks back to an earlier Bush remark about his "raiding" of the Massachusetts pension fund.
His best response came on the issue of abortion, where he attacked Bush's position that the procedure be limited to cases of rape, incest and where the health of the mother is endangered by a pregnancy.
Except for that, Dukakis performed as if he has decided to rely on topics and public statements that served him well in the primaries. If there was anything new in his debate comments, it was extremely well shrouded.
Bush, meanwhile, had already begun steering his campaign to the high road. His best answer was a follow-up to a question given to Dukakis about modern-day heroes.
The vice president named names; the governor dealt in impersonal categories of people. At another point, Bush paid tribute to Dukakis' family life.
Throughout the exchange, Bush acted the part of the front-runner. He was both calm and firm, pointing out where his philosophy differed from that of his rival. It would be hard to imagine the man we have gotten to know these many years doing much better.