One of the candidates likened last week's Democratic presidential debate in Houston to the opening game of the long National Basketball Association season -- and several of the participants realized afterward their reflexes haven't reached mid-season form.

As Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) was having his makeup removed in the dressing room, he told campaign manager Bill Carrick that he regretted not attacking Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis on trade. "It's not too late," Carrick told his candidate. Within minutes, Gephardt had marched into the crowded press room to fire a shot at Dukakis on trade, signaling a strategy he repeated Friday in Iowa.

Sen. Gore showed he was nervous and overcoached Wednesday night when he tried to make a point about the potential of dark-horse candidates. The first dark-horse candidate to make it to the White House was fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, but as Gore told the story, it came out as "James K. Knox." On Thursday morning, his aides went to a Houston store to purchase the campaign's first souvenirs: specially-made T-shirts emblazoned with "James K. Knox for President."

And former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, whose debate performance reviews were at best discouraging, told a group of supporters upon returning to Phoenix, "The bad news is I was absolutely terrible. The good news is that if they could teach Mr. Ed to talk on television, they can teach me."