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What are they talking about, the debate was a tie? Dukakis killed him. He had better command of his facts, his arguments and his smile. Bush, away from his scriptwriters, returned to his old self: bumbling, tongue-tied and given to laughing at his own jokes. He was pathetic.

The fact that I feel that way probably means that George Bush really won. I have seldom been right in judging the outcome of a presidential debate. Carter-Reagan, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Ferraro, I've been wrong every time.The major polls taken in the still-foaming wake of the debate suggested that the debate had indeed been a tie.

But a far more ominous sign for Dukakis were the results of "focus groups" conducted around the country. A focus group is a small group of people which pollsters hope is representative of a larger group - ethnics, conservatives, liberals, whatever. You get them in a room and question them in depth about an issue or event and you get some notion why the larger group feels as it does; that's the idea.

The focus groups tended to be "Reagan Democrats," ethnics and blue-collar types who were drawn to the Republican party by Reagan and the ones the Democrats need back if they are to win in November. They were a disaster for Dukakis.

When the candidates came out for the opening handshake a woman in a Michigan group said: "He's shorter than I thought" and a companion chimed in with "I'm surprised he didn't bring along his Rubber-Maid step-ladder." The only bigger laugh of the night came when Dukakis said he was tough on crime.

In another Michigan group, a retired Chrysler Corporation employee said that Dukakis had done little but "talk about liberal programs for people who don't want to work for a living - people on welfare for generations."

In a California group, two young women fell into a discussion of the size of Dukakis' head and decided it was too big.

Again and again, people said that Bush had come off as "more human" and by the end of the evening it was Bush who had the most votes swing to his side.

Is this any way to pick a president? Issues have been overtaken by atmospherics. If a great man were to appear suddenly among us, we'd lock him up for impersonating a Martian. Not that either Bush or Dukakis gave any hint of greatness.

Dukakis' job in this campaign is to convince voters that there is a future waiting for us that is far more terrifying than the present and that we need him to steer us through it. For all of his debating points, he really didn't do that.

Bush's task is to convince people that they've got a good thing going and that they don't want to risk screwing it up. For all of his klutziness, it looks as though he may have succeeded in doing just that.

In a technical sense, however, Dukakis won the debate, and I'm sure President Mondale agrees with me.