WASHINGTON — Some of the voters with the stamina and the stomach to watch Tuesday night's vice presidential debate reacted as if they were subjected to a civics lesson of the sausage-making variety. It wasn't pretty.
The arguments and counter-arguments changed few minds and few votes among three dozen citizens around the country who were interviewed by The Times after they viewed the debate. Many of them had strong reactions to the spectacle itself, describing it variously as "comical," "distasteful," "infantile" and "pathetic."
Most found it far livelier and more entertaining than Sunday night's presidential debate, but few felt educated or edified by it.
Each of the three participants--Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee and retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale--won some plaudits for his performance. Quayle was seen as having made substantial progress from his embarrassing showing of four years ago; Gore was praised for his relative restraint and thoughtful manner; Stockdale earned admiration for his sterling war record and his endearing artlessness.
But the overall impression was of a two-man brawl observed by a bewildered white-haired hero of a bygone era.
"My God, if I couldn't project myself any more intelligently than those guys did tonight, I don't know, I'd be pretty embarrassed," said Bill Fritz of Chesterfield, Ind., the manager of a local cable television station. "It was just a bunch of infighting, like a couple of kids in a playground. I thought it was all pretty disgusting."
The net effect of the Quayle-Gore slugfest was to reinforce the disdain with which supporters of independent Ross Perot view the political system that produced and encouraged them. However, none of the people interviewed said they had switched their support from President Bush or Democrat Bill Clinton to Perot as a result of the vice presidential melee.
But at least one undecided voter was so appalled that he is now seriously considering supporting Perot.
Brian Olson, an Appleton, Wis., social services worker, said: "After a while, it got pathetic with Gore and Quayle going after each other so much . . . just listening to them made me angry about the political process, it makes me feel more strongly than before that I'd like to give Perot a shot, that I want to listen to what he has to say."
Melissa Hendricks, a 37-year-old homemaker from Midland, Tex., said she was sticking with Bush--but only as the lesser of three evils.
"If Pee Wee Herman were running, I probably would vote for him," Hendricks said.
For the most part, the partisans of Bush and Clinton found reason to cheer the performance of the two men's running mates, although with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Mark Allen, a 34-year-old agriculture teacher in Wathena, Kan., backed Clinton before the debate and believed that Gore emerged the clear debate victor and by far the better choice for national office.
"He just seemed more truthful and confident and calm. He answered questions without being too emotional, which is what I would like to see in people when they get in a heated debate, because that's how they'd probably react in the White House," Allen said.
"Quayle struck me like he always has: He seemed to be struggling to get his point across. He just doesn't seem real sharp."
As for Stockdale, Allen said, the war hero/scholar was a disappointment. "You'd kind of like to see him have a better grasp of the facts and be more fluid with his explanations of what he believes in. I liked Perot until he quit, and that soured me on him."
Beth Revis, 37, a wife and mother of two who also runs a small personal care boarding home for three elderly people in Littleton, Colo., considered Quayle the winner. The former telephone technician is not registered with a political party but voted for Bush in 1988.
"I think Quayle did great. He was very personable. He stuck to his beliefs. He's never changed his beliefs, and I appreciate that. I think he's built himself a lot of backbone and character over the last four years. He's learned how to stand up for himself," Revis said.
Quayle's repeated reminders that Clinton cannot be trusted apparently hit home with Revis. "I don't trust anybody that won't fight for their country. And I don't trust a fellow who allows his wife to wear the pants in the family."
Revis called Gore "a nerd" who repeatedly made groundless accusations.
But she has not ruled out a vote for Perot and said that Stockdale was the clear favorite of her three boarders. "I've got three elderly people who live with me, and tonight they all liked the old guy."
An undecided voter who has flirted with a Perot vote said that he is increasingly disinclined to support the independent Dallas billionaire. The vice presidential debate confirmed his growing belief that Perot and Stockdale are not ready for prime time.
Tom Reibenspies, 47, a graphic artist in San Francisco, said: "The admiral and Perot aren't politicians; they don't know how Washington works. The others are more seasoned. . . . I think the only way to get Washington to come around is to be a politician. I don't understand how people think that one man can be a savior."
Times staff writer Matt Marshall in Washington, special correspondents Gary Boulard in New Orleans and Mike Clary in Miami, and researchers Lianne Hart in Houston and Douglas Conner in Seattle contributed to this story.