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Answering a debate question, President Bush remembered what he'd meant to say earlier - "I just thought of another big difference here" with challenger Bill Clinton, he said.

It was a minor moment in presidential campaign debate. But Bush has been having problems with political timing since the start of his troubled quest for a second term.The one disclosure Bush had to offer in the first campaign debate was dropped offhandedly, halfway through.

"What I'm going to do is say to Jim Baker when this campaign is over, all right, let's sit down now, you do in domestic affairs what you've done in foreign affairs," Bush said. "Be kind of the economic coordinator of all the domestic side of the house."

That was supposed to be a signal of second-term change. There had been talk of it earlier this year. By the time the president got around to it, his announcement not only was muffled, it was a reversal. Bush had said in a television interview a week before that he hoped Baker would return as secretary of state.

Baker's projected role - it's moot unless Bush wins re-election - is to take over a new lineup. Bush didn't mention that; the White House announced later that he was getting election-dated resignations from the Cabinet and top political appointees.

Timing again.

While second-term shakeups are not unusual, the customary course is to seek the resignations the president wants or, as Richard Nixon did in 1972, get them from everybody after a president has been re-elected.

Bush said he acted because he thinks a new team is needed for a second term. It would have gained him a lot more politically had he acted long ago. It's been eight months since he went to New Hampshire to launch his active campaign by telling people he cared. Changing then might have helped more than caring.

The debating point to which Bush returned belatedly was his insistence that Democrat Clinton is trying to make the economic situation seem worse than it really is. The lagging economy will be back on the agenda tonight when the TV debate miniseries resumes in Richmond, Va., matching Bush, Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

It's the third episode, after the presidential opener in St. Louis on Sunday and the scrappy vice presidential clash that set Dan Quayle and Al Gore arguing in each other's faces Tuesday night.

Quayle hammered at trust and taxes, Gore at the economic slump and the Democrats' call for change.

They were more combative than the first team, and that harsher tone could echo in Richmond. There are only two debates and 19 campaign days to go, and Bush hasn't yet found the formula to shake the race and close in on Clinton's lead in the public opinion polls.

In the opening rounds, presidential and vice presidential, the debates were essentially standoffs between the major nominees. Perot's snappy lines and outsider's role made him the star of the St. Louis show, but his running mate, James Stockdale, was a flop in Atlanta.

Bush says elections don't hinge on debates. That's usually been so, although both Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy said they wouldn't have won without them. But after the finale in East Lansing, Mich., next Monday, there won't be many openings left for Bush to engineer a turnaround.