By Graham Earnshaw
OMAHA, Nebraska, Oct 6, Reuter – As delighted backers puffed cigars, Michael Dukakis proclaimed victory for Lloyd Bentsen and George Bush toasted Dan Quayle after a fiery television clash over who could best lead the nation if the president died.
At the end of the 90-minute vice-presidential debate — ignited by a sharp exchange over the memory of assassinated President John Kennedy — Democratic presidential candidate Dukakis and Republican candidate Bush had only praise for their running mates.
Some commentators billed the Omaha debate as Quayle versus Quayle because of questions over the Indiana senator’s lack of experience and undistinguished career.
In the event, both candidates proved stubborn with neither giving ground on issues ranging from farm to defence policy.
It was a match pitting a handsome, rich, 41-year-old who has run into controversy over his National Guard service during the Vietnam War and his academic career against a 67-year-old, grandfatherly patrician, World War II pilot, businessman and legislator.
After the fight that at times turned bitter and icy, Dukakis told cheering supporters smoking victory cigars in a Boston hotel he had telephoned his congratulations to his running mate.
“The most important quality for vice-president is that he’s ready at a moment’s notice to assume the presidency of the United States,” the 54-year-old governor said. “Tonight Lloyd Bentsen demonstrated that he was the one candidate ready to do that.”
In Fort Worth, Texas, Bush — using a baseball expression for a home run — said Quayle “knocked it right out of the park” and staunchly defended his much-criticised choice for vice-president to succeed him in event of a tragedy.
Bush said both he and President Reagan had congratulated Quayle in telephone calls.
“This guy was under tremendous fire, under the darndest criticism before this that anyone has ever been subjected to,” said the 64-year-old Republican standard bearer, who leads most polls narrowly over Dukakis.
“He came through with flying colors,” Bush added. “Now people can see what I’ve seen all along and I’m very proud of Senator Quayle and a lot of people across the country are going to feel exactly the same way.”
There were no knockdowns in the fight that covered farm, trade, budget, tax, environmental, Social Security and ethical fund raising matters.
Quayle proved knowledgeable on most issues and pundits said he held his own, which was a form of victory, since he went into the encounter expected by some people to fall flat on his face.
But a snap ABC television post-debate poll reported 51 per cent of viewers said Bentsen won against 27 per cent for Quayle. Asked if Quayle was qualified to be president, 48 per cent said yes and 49 per cent no.
Quayle tried to answer most questions with criticism of Dukakis. On aid to Nicaraguan rebels, which Dukakis opposes, he said: “The governor of Massachusetts is simply out of the mainstream of America.”
There were repeated questions about Quayle’s qualifications to take over the presidency if Bush died and he returned time and again to his 12 years experience in Congress.
At one time he said that the first thing he would do if he became president would be to say a prayer — reminiscent of Harry Truman who wrote that that was what he did when he took over on the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.
But clearly the emotional and dramatic highlight came when Quayle, with deadly earnestness, stared into television cameras past the debate hall crowd and said his congressional years made him ready to assume the presidency if needed.
“I have as much experience in this Congress as John Kennedy did when he ran for president.”
Kennedy, 43 when he won the presidency in 1960, had served a total of 14 years in Congress, two more than Quayle.
Bentsen glared at Quayle and scornfully said:
“Senator … I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.
After a pause, Bentsen — his voice steady — added:
“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
As Dukakis supporters in the crowd roared their delight, Quayle returned the glare and angrily responded — to cheers of his backers — “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”
“You’re the one who was making the comparison…Senator” Bentsen retorted, stressing “senator” sarcastically.
“…And,” Bentsen, his voice quavering, added, “Frankly, I think you’re so far apart in the objectives that you choose for your country, that I did not think the comparison was well taken.”
It was unclear who won that exchange. Some commentators said that despite the emotional tones of Bentsen’s remarks, many viewers may believe that Quayle came out the better.
Neither man broke new ground nor committed major gaffes as they answered questions from three reporters before an arena packed with supporters from both sides, with the Dukakis-Bentsen supporters taking the award for leather-lunged boisterousness. REUTER TS JRF NNNN