WASHINGTON — The first network television debate of the 1988 presidential campaign reaffirmed the status of Vice President George Bush as the leader in the race for the Republican nomination, and it focused attention on the vulnerabilities of one of the hottest Democratic contenders, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, while giving a boost to one of his rivals, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.
Those are the salient points that emerged Wednesday from interviews with strategists for the candidates and independent analysts in the wake of Tuesday night's NBC-sponsored debate.
Many of them viewed the Republican match-up as close to a replay of the first televised GOP debate in Houston in October, with Bush most of the time remaining self-assured and poised despite the efforts of his chief rival, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, and the other four contenders--New York Rep. Jack Kemp, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former television evangelist Pat Robertson and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
"Again Bush came out as the winner because nothing happened to make him lose," said Republican consultant Eddie Mahe Jr., a veteran of past presidential campaigns but as yet unaffiliated for 1988.
On the Democrat side, the principal target for Tuesday night on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater was Simon. He surprised most professionals by not seeming to expect the onslaught, chiefly from Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who scornfully described Simon's economic ideas as "Simonomics," which he dismissed as "Reaganomics with a bow tie."
"He should have known that was coming," said American Enterprise Institute analyst Norman J. Ornstein. He noted that Simon's recent surge to the front in opinion polls in Iowa, where the Democratic delegate-selection process begins next February, and charges that Simon's proposals for new government programs are inconsistent with his commitment to balance the budget, had made the attack on him inevitable.
Rival strategists suggested that efforts to portray Simon as less than honest about his budget plans will be particularly damaging, because Simon has made such an effort to appear earnest and straightforward. "Simon could be the first candidate to be hurt by a character issue that is related to substance," said Mark Mellman, pollster for Gore. "If I were his wife, I'd trust him with another woman, but I don't think the voters will trust him with the keys to the Treasury."
While Simon was struggling to defend himself, Gore was boldly taking the initiative from the opening question of the debate, when he pronounced himself "appalled" that only one of the six Republican candidates backs the missile ban treaty President Reagan is scheduled to sign next week at his summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"Gore did well," said Republican consultant John Deardourff, who counseled President Ford in 1976 but is neutral in this campaign. "His answers are intelligent and well delivered, and he looks good," Deardourff said, adding that the normally stiff-necked Gore had "loosened up a little."
While he was helping himself, many believe that indirectly, and presumably unintentionally, Gore also was helping Republican front-runner Bush by focusing attention on the missile treaty issue. As the only one of the Republican contenders urging ratification of the treaty, Bush is on the side of the most Americans, or so his supporters claim.
The treaty is less popular with hard-line GOP conservatives than with other groups, but some analysts believe that as the front-runner, Bush can afford to take a stand on an issue that appeals mainly to general election voters, rather than participants in Republican primaries. "Bush enjoys the luxury of appealing to the whole national audience," said Deardourff.
Besides, in the view of some analysts, Bush's closest competitor, Dole, didn't help himself by once again reserving judgment on the treaty. "I've never let the President down yet," Dole said. "But I have the right to read and study and have my experts take a look at this very important treaty."
"Dole was only middling, particularly on the missile treaty," said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Stephen Hess, a former aide to three Republican presidents. With his standoffish attitude, Hess said, Dole "is trying to pick up some conservative votes." But by dwelling on the Senate's role in ratification, Hess said it seemed that Dole was thinking and sounding "more like a senator" than a President.
Bush did have one difficult moment, provided not by Dole but by Haig, who brought up the unpleasant matter of the arms sales to Iran. "Where were you when the Administration made (that) decision?" Haig demanded. And referring to Bush's earlier description of himself as President Reagan's co-pilot, Haig added: "Were you in the cockpit or on an economy ride in the back of the plane?"
Bush did not directly respond, and Haig complained that the vice president had ducked the question.