WASHINGTON — Who won the vice presidential debate Tuesday, or at least helped their side in the race for President?
The answer depends on which media you rely on, as well as what criteria you care about.
The debate was a draw on ABC, a victory for Democrat Al Gore on NBC. Both their commentators and their instant polls said so.
But as the media sorted through the claims that the candidates made during the debate, Vice President Dan Quayle took a beating. "If debates were judged on who told the truth, Quayle would lose hands down," Brooks Jackson said on CNN.
And if one were to measure debates by which moments were replayed on the late news shows Tuesday night and the morning and evening news programs Wednesday, Quayle got his message across, although Gore and even retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale at times stumped him.
Finally, in the feature stories, the interviews with viewers, the focus groups and the judging by professional debate judges, the Democrats again seemed to win.
"View the exercise as a debating contest and the verdict by a panel of debate coaches goes to the spit-and-polish Al Gore," an Associated Press story said--a sentiment echoed by a similar story on NBC.
Two polls were conducted immediately after the debate. The survey by ABC found that 38% deemed Gore the winner and 35% picked Quayle, a difference that falls within the poll's margin of error. Just 2% declared Stockdale the winner, and 17% called the face-off a tie.
On NBC, however, 50% thought Gore "did the best job," contrasted with 32% for Quayle and 7% for Stockdale.
Whether coincidental or not, the dueling poll results correspond with different interpretations of the debate offered by the two networks.
"This was one of the best performances Quayle has ever had," ABC's Jeff Greenfield declared moments after the debate ended. A few hours later, ABC's "Nightline" reported that Quayle and Gore had fared equally.
"The consensus here is that Al Gore had a much better night than Dan Quayle," NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert intoned shortly after the debate ended.
In the world of political consensus-making, the next level of shaping perceptions involves which sound bites are replayed in the news. Here, Quayle and Gore got their overall messages across--trust for Republicans and change for the Democrats.
One of the most replayed sound bites was Quayle's opening remark, which was almost identical to his closing remark. "You need to have a President you can trust. Can you really trust Bill Clinton?"
Gore's most popular sound bite was also from his opening. "Bill Clinton and I stand for change, because we don't believe our nation can stand four more years of what we've had under George Bush and Dan Quayle."
But equally popular was the moment when Stockdale, after having listened to a lengthy exchange of barbs and disagreements between Quayle and Gore, interrupted to say: "I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock."
Also popular was Gore interrupting Quayle with another zinger. "We ought to limit terms," Quayle was saying. "It's ridiculous that a member of Congress can serve 30, 40, 50 years . . . . "
"We're fixing to limit one," Gore said, in a clear reference to Bush.
Quayle looked momentarily stunned, and his retort was too long to work as a sound bite.