September 30, 2004


The first thing to keep in mind about the debates is that even the most memorable ones didn't change elections--they are recalled because they crystallized what people thought of the candidates. Whoever leads on Labor Day consistently goes on to win the election, irrespective of the debates.

Second, in every open two-party election (those races without an incumbent) in modern memory the candidate perceived as less intelligent has won. So there is no percentage in being pronounced the technical winner of the debates, a de facto smarty-pants.

Third, people have been wondering why George Bush was content to play defense tonight. It's important to remember that this forced a Senator Kerry who many people still don't know and many of those who do know don't like to be the aggressor, a position from which it is difficult to seem like a nice guy at the same time. The President made effective use of a little bit of exasperation, even annoyance, in deflecting attacks, almost a physical version of: "There you go again." If you're well versed in John Kerry's career it probably looked like a pretty good night for him. If you don't know much about him or are put off by the little you do know, this kind of performance wouldn't make you like him.

Fourth, if part of John Kerry's task tonight was to seem more likable, and that was not achieved, he also had to reassure his own party that he isn't a complete disaster--and there he certainly succeeded, probably winning the debate in technical debating terms--and to try and clarify his muddled message. On that last he did not do himself much good, but it's hard to see how he could have. His message tonight was: "The war was a mistake because Saddam wasn't a threat but I voted for it because Saddam was a threat and though I disapprove of the war now, I'll prosecute it just as vigorously as the President who believes in it wholeheartedly." That just isn't a coherent position but it's one that he's trapped in after voting for the war.

Last, on a series of issues he came across as soft in exactly the ways that Republicans have been portraying him. The idea that our policies should pass a global test, that al Qaeda will attack us because of Iraq so we shouldn't have gone, that we should grant Kim Jong-il the bilateral talks he's seeking, that we should give Iran nuclear material and that we shouldn't develop the nuclear capacity to bust bunkers, even though Iran and North Korea are developing nukes, are all the kind of liberal pabulum that the GOP has been forcing back down Democrats throats for a quarter century now.

FINAL SCORE: a draw--Kerry on debating points, Bush on political

Close debate may not sway the undecided: While both candidates hammered home familiar points in a closely contested debate, undecided voters may need to look to future encounters for defining moments. (FRANK DAVIES, 10/01/04, Miami Herald)

If the first debate of the 2004 presidential campaign accomplished one sure thing, it was to dispel hopes from either camp for a clear victory.

Rarely during its 90 minutes did the event produce sparks or memorable lines, although there was plenty of friction between the two. On the plus side, clear differences emerged, which may have been a service to voters just tuning in to this campaign.

On the other side, however, the format enabled both candidates to relentlessly repeat some of their most-tested attack lines from stump speeches. As a result, the body language may have been more revealing than the verbal language. President Bush ranged from disgusted to folksy, from calm to nearly hyper. Sen. John Kerry -- often accused of being wordy and wooden -- came through as forceful, direct and able to keep his sentences short and punchy.

In the end, given that television is such a visceral medium, viewers are likely to end up where they began, leaving it to future encounters to produce the seismic change the candidates are looking for.

Both candidates proved expert at remaining relentlessly on message, hammering home the points each needed to prevent defeat, if not gain victory. [...]

Conventional wisdom holds that if there is no clear winner in a debate, that tends to favor the incumbent. But it also raises the stakes for the next debate Oct. 8 with a very different format -- a town hall forum with voters' questions on domestic issues.

''This was a tough debate to call,'' said Kathleen Kendall, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland who has watched every encounter since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.

''Kerry hit at Bush's credibility, which was effective, but Bush never wavered from his themes,'' Kendall said. She predicted that the debate will help each candidate energize his base, but may not make sharp inroads on undecided voters.

If one key test of leadership separates the two, it is whether Bush's resolute confidence leads to stubbornness, and whether Kerry is too flexible, even opportunistic, in his positions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2004 11:52 PM

Sixth, for most of the fifty million or so who were watching, Bush looked them (the camera) in the eye and said: I won't hesitate to act and protect you. Advantage, Bush, though not on style points.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at October 1, 2004 12:27 AM

Kerry basically said the same thing, talking directly to the American people, in his closing statement... did he not?

Posted by: Hunter Ratliff at October 1, 2004 12:32 AM


True enough. But the preceeding 88 minutes were about global tests, summits, UN hurdles . . .

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at October 1, 2004 12:40 AM

I hadto catch the debate on radio tonight (and at that only the last hour), and as far as the oral tone, Bush did come off at times in the Al Gore mode of lecturing Kerry a little. But the difference between now and four years ago is the lecturing was on not on esoteric topics like lock boxes and Dingle-Norwood, but on the terrorism threat, and in those terms, Kerry's "global test" reamrk will have to be revised and extended by the senator over the next few days, assuming he's willing to sit for more interviews (I would think his handlers will feel confident enough in his performance to allow a few more appearances with "soft" newsies over the next week like the "Good Morning America" stuff with Dianne Sawyer).

As for the media spin on the debate, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the Dan Rather-CBS scandal has on network and the big newspapers' commentary. Figuring out what they're going to say isn't hard for folks who pay attention all the time, but the Rather incident is fresh enough that many of the people who normally don't follow politics all that closely -- and who the media will be hoping to spin -- will be looking at any commentary with extreme skepticism after the memo fraud fiasco.

Posted by: John at October 1, 2004 12:43 AM

Bush was hesitant and inarticulate with many of his answers, but that just lives up to expectations. He drove home the points of resoluteness and sending clear signals, which reinforces his strength and Kerry's weakness.

On the question of preemption, he made the point that by showing resolve and the willingness to act, we lessen the need to go to war. He missed the opportunity to bring up how our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have won us the cooperation of Libya, and more recently it appears, Syria.

Kerry was the more polished and articulate in presentation, but again he was meeting expectations. He will probably pick up a few points in the polls just for the fact that the debate gave him an opportunity to show composure and some coherence, as opposed to his disastrous stump performances since the convention. But he couldn't resist alluding to his perceived weaknesses on flip-flopping, which just reinforces it. At one point, to accuse Bush of changing his mind on Iraq, he said "the President did something that his campaign accuses me of (flip-flopping) by ...". That reference won't help him. At the end, he seemed defensive, after Bush stated that he would stay the course in Iraq, by saying that he would be "very" resolute. The added emphasis showed an acknowledgement that he is perceived as not being resolute.

A tie, which helps Bush. Bush has only to play defense and run out the clock. As long as he avoids mistakes, he wins.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 1, 2004 1:19 AM

"KERRY: I know I can do a better job in Iraq. I have a plan to have a summit with all of the allies, something this president has not yet achieved, not yet been able to do to bring people to the table."

Yes, as all working stiffs know, the tough problems can only be solved by meetings.

Posted by: David Hill, The Bronx at October 1, 2004 1:33 AM

The debate was, as I thought it would be, a draw. The problem is that a draw actually hurts Kerry, not Bush. Kerry has been behind in the polls for a month, his negatives are up, his positives are down, he lacks a coherent message and his putative allies & campaign staff frequently step on his message. The Democratic base is restless, the moderate Dems are giving Bush a look, and the conservative Dems jumped ship long ago. Kerry needed to convince the independents and the Dems leaning toward Bush, not that he wasn't a bad guy, and not that he was tough on defense, no, he needed to prove he would be a better president.

Bush is a known factor. People like him, they trust him to do what he says, and they believe he's doing what he thinks is right - not that they always agree with him, but that doesn't really enter into it and that's the problem Kerry faces. This late in the game people aren't jumping ship on the off chance Kerry might not suck. He had to prove he was a better choice, and he didn't. Worse, he gave Bush & Rove all the ammo they need to sink his campaign, just imagine this commercial:

DOWDIFIED KERRY VOICEOVER: No president...has ever ceded...the right to...protect the United States of America...but if and when you do have to do it in a way that passes...the global test can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

It's really not much better un-Dowdified. Meanwhile Bush's response was just devastating:

BUSH: Let me -- I'm not exactly sure what you mean, "passes the global test," you take preemptive action if you pass a global test.

My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.

My opponent talks about me not signing certain treaties. Let me tell you one thing I didn't sign, and I think it shows the difference of our opinion -- the difference of opinions.

And that is, I wouldn't join the International Criminal Court. It's a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops or diplomats up for trial.

That's the end of that for Kerry, the fat lady is warming up and the ushers are getting ready to turn up the lights 'cause the party is definitely over.

Posted by: Robert Modean at October 1, 2004 1:45 AM

A draw ? Kerry blew Bush away. He didn't come over as a deranged jerk and he pointed out the obvious : Bush hasn't won yet in Iraq, nor has he any notion of when there will be victory or how it's going to be achieved or even what defines victory. And Osama hasn't been caught (although he may be dead, but that doesn't matter much because his followers still get their videotapes and believe their leader is still alive). Bush is Lincoln in 1864 without the fall of Atlanta.

I don't know why Bush didn't attack Kerry on his disgusting defeatism, because that's the only thing that will keep him his job. "Yes, I f---ed up, but my opponent will take orders from Osama, just like Spanish PM Zapatero". Bush is a very weak horse, but Kerry isn't even a mule (he's a Donkey though). That needed to be pointed out, but being such a nice guy, Bush didn't.

Posted by: Peter at October 1, 2004 2:47 AM

Wasn't Ketchup Boy one of the 95 senators to vote against Kyoto? He certainly didn't have the 'courage' to vote for it, as no Senator did.

Bush looked to me to be playing a rope-a-dope strategy. He kept it simple, understanding that he is speaking to the camera, not to the audience and certainly not to the self-important goober from PBS. His strategy (stratergy?) of letting Kerry be Kerry seemed to work, as Kerry showed himself to be all over the map, flighty and not grounded in anything resembling a moral center.

If any voters were swung, it was those who were waiting for Kerry to wow them. They were sorely disappointed and are probably voting for Bush or staying home.

Posted by: Bart at October 1, 2004 6:29 AM

Kerry was very good. Bush was avuncular. Kerry needed Bush to be nutty, to self destruct, that didn't happen: landslide.

Posted by: JimGooding at October 1, 2004 7:11 AM


The weak horse is headed towards a landslide because he has sense enough not to do such things. His best moment was when he was surprised that Lehrer even expected him to bristle at Kerry calling him a liar.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 7:27 AM


Kerry did do that which, if I recall correctly, he failed to do in his convention speech. His closing last night should have been given in Boston.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 7:34 AM

Kerry did a good job of making his points forcefully and articulately -- but his points are losing points.

He did not help himself on the question of leaving Saddam in place. That's still a muddle and will remain so, because he can't make it coherent.

Except for some flashes, the President was not on. He clearly thinks that Kerry is not qualified to be president, and may have a hard time taking him seriously. He's going to be sharper for the domestic debate. He did, though, have a good command of the facts. I think they may have focused so much on stuffing him full of facts that they lost track of his personality.

The bottom line, though, is that I don't know what the bottom line is. No one spending time at Brothers Judd blog is a typical voter, and I don't think that we can put ourselves into the minds of the typical voter. We've been stewing in this stuff for eighteen months now. Lots of voters don't even know that John Kerry served bravely in Vietnam.

I think, though by definition I don't know, that the president will play better with more nearly normal voters. Throughout the debate, Kerry used cryptic lines that made sense to us (at least, we understood the backstory and to what he was alluding). Lots of voters won't understand what the heck he was talking about. This also explains, by the way, why the president keeps repeating lines that we are tired of hearing.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 1, 2004 7:44 AM

FWIW, the Tradesports Bush futures dropped a miniscule 0.5%, which seems to support the thesis that the debates are a 'draw'.

They've been ramping downwards over the past week or so for reasons that are unclear to me (pre-debate positioning?).

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at October 1, 2004 7:56 AM

Whoops! The trading is a little volatile right now. It will take a day or two to digest the debate performances and achieve an equilibrium.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at October 1, 2004 8:05 AM

The debates don't change elections ?

Didn't Gore lose the '00 election by losing all of the debates ?
If he'd convinced a thousand more people in Florida that he didn't have mental/emotional problems...

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 1, 2004 8:12 AM

Agree that the debate was a draw or a slight Kerry win. I expected a bit of a replay of 2000 with Kerry being the monotonous policy wonk and Bush winning on personality - the opposite almost happened as Bush was more specific than Kerry and Kerry, while not likeable, was not as loathsome as he normally is. Bush did appear tired and at some points I had the feeling that he felt he shouldn't even be on the same stage as Kerry. I don't think this will move many voters but I was hoping Bush would win this thing and put Kerry out - Dems were getting discouraged and this might cheer them up a bit. Finally, as noted above Bush should come out with an ad pronto on the global test line to further push Kerry into the peacenik camp. And Bush needs to do better in the next debate.

Posted by: AWW at October 1, 2004 8:18 AM

By the way, would there be any point to Kerry resigning from the Senate four weeks before the election ?

The campaigns have been so focused on the 70s that Kerry's continuing status as a Senator never really became an issue.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 1, 2004 8:22 AM

Michael - to your point, I thought Lehrer did ok but not one question on the Senator's senate votes, career, experience, etc.? Hopefully the future moderators will be more balanced.

Posted by: AWW at October 1, 2004 8:25 AM


No. Gore won by the narrow margin he had at Labor Day.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 8:30 AM


Resigning is a way to convince waverers that you're serious and commited. It also puts you in control of the storyline.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 8:32 AM

Bush looked more like Gore than he did Bush. For the next debate he needs to stand up straight and proud and knock off the childlike looks of exasperation etc. Facial expressions are not his strong point and only detract from the performance. Definately a Kerry advantage on this debate but carries the probability of low expectations for the next two ... and the possibility of increasing Kerry's hubris, which could be dangerous for him.

Furthermore, where the hell was Rove et al in determining Lehrer's questions? They, the questions, placed Bush in the defendents chair for the entire evening and GW doesn't come off as too swift on the uptake. If he can't do better the next time he should report in sick and send in Cheney or Zell Miller for the final debate... assuming the debates mean something ... and I believe they do.

Reaction at a Bush household: Wife fell asleep and I turned it off after about an hour/plus, somewhat depressed. Seems like I must have missed the best part from what I'm reading. The people saying beforehand that Bush was a strong debator must be laughing up their sleeves. Great bit of disinformation. He does really well with a script but consistantly poor with unplanned responses and Rove should know that. Agreeing to three debates was a questionable overreach.

The election is closer than the polls suggest and it's Bushes to lose if he doesn't shape up. Hope that he does and that I'm dead wrong on all of this.

Posted by: genecis at October 1, 2004 8:56 AM

Pat Buchanan, on Imus, said something that had occurred to me last night (no, really, I thought of it myself. Really). Having the audience be so quiet worked against the president, who was clearly expecting some reaction to some of his lines. Senator Kerry, on the other hand, didn't seem to be thrown by a completely unresponsive audience.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 1, 2004 9:01 AM

Those of you talking about ad ammunition: I'm pretty sure one of the agreements in the debate's 32-page rule book is that neither campaign can use debate material in advertising campaigns.

Posted by: Tomas at October 1, 2004 9:20 AM

Tomas - I can't believe that is correct - is there a way to check it? You might be right but then I would expect the candidates to be less careful with their statements knowing they wouldn't become ads.

Posted by: AWW at October 1, 2004 9:28 AM


Bush supporters consistently underestimate his debate performances. You heard all the same things after each Bush/Gore debate, then a few days later they'd calmed down.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 9:40 AM

On substance, it was a draw. Nobody for whom the election is about issues saw anything last night that would make him change his mind about either candidate.

On style, Kerry won because he exceeded expectations, while Bush just met them. Dubya was Dubya. Love him or hate him, he was pretty much the same person we've known for four years (except a bit more annoyed and less relaxed than usual). Kerry's biggest problem is his reputation as a waffler. While he said nothing of substance to refute the fact that he flip-flops, he said it with enough confidence to reassure some of those who had doubts. A debate may be the ideal forum for Kerry, because even he can stick to a position for 90 minutes. He looked reasonably presidential, if boring, which is about the best he ever looks.

Much of the credit has to go to Lehrer. All of the questions were about Bush's record, so Bush was on defense all night, and Kerry on offense. (I suspect Bush's annoyance was inspired mostly by Lehrer, not Kerry). Maybe that's how it should be, because elections are supposedly about the incumbent. Either way, Kerry should send Lehrer a dozen roses this morning.

The question now, of course, is how much it will affect voters' choices. I don't profess to have a lot of insight into how swing-voters think, but I suspect that there are a few out there who don't want to vote for Bush, and were hoping for some reassurance that Kerry wasn't a total loser. They may have gotten some last night. The race may tighten up a little between now and the second debate. The average poll has Bush up by about 5 points, so he should still have a small lead.

Posted by: Tom L at October 1, 2004 9:42 AM

Hugh Hewitt quotes an anonymous member of the military who makes an interesting point. This may work out better in the long run than some of us think this morning.

"Former SOTA Team Leader

10th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

Kerry didn't pull a pratfall, which is a very good thing for the GOP. Bush will be re-elected and Kerry soundly defeated on the basis of their ideas about American power and the conduct of the war. No excuses about the left's candidate's inability to get the message down. Kerry got it down, and he delivered it, and it will be rejected. Bush's message, by contrast, will be accepted, confirmed, embraced. The strongest nation in the world is also the best nation in the world, and its voters will not trade in a president certain of that fact for one interested in passing the tests laid down for us by Chirac or Shroeder, or distrustful of our stewardship of nuclear weapons."

It is better for all of us if the left understands that it is their message that's being rejected, not just their candidate.

Posted by: Jeff at October 1, 2004 10:11 AM

Also, read Lilek's bleat today. Hysterical, I'll put in the link because I can't do it justice but he has one Steynesque line that deserves to be repeated:

"Summits are convened not to solve a problem but solve the perception that there is a problem."

Posted by: Jeff at October 1, 2004 10:19 AM

I don't get it. John Kerry stood there on stage and promised us he would finish the job in Iraq. A good third of his voters want us out of there yesterday. How can Kerry expect to keep his base of hippies and peaceniks and shell-shocked soccer moms in line when he has nothing to offer them?

Posted by: spongeworthy at October 1, 2004 10:33 AM

I agree with Jim Gooding. Bush reminded me of a favorite uncle who is respected for his integrity and clear eye. Kerry did well, no stumbling or mumbling. He certainly reflected the Old Europe perspective and, if that agrees with your own worldview, stated his case clearly. Bush projected certainty and steadfastness all evening- no backing down or giving quarter. His nobility asserted itself when he refused to take Lehrer's bait to rag on Kerry. His facial expression (a mixture of pique and annoyance) was evident too often. I imagine I would react the same if I thought my opponent just didn't see the world clearly. I saw the debate as a draw with Kerry's worst moment as his "passing the global test" comment. He left himself open for a broadside and Bush took advantage. His best moments were admitting his errors on some of his past comments and his compliment to the First Lady. Bush's strong points were his refusal to attack the character issue and his confidence in the rightness of his positions. His weak moments were his looks of exasperation and a tendency to telegraph his emotions.

Posted by: Pilgrim at October 1, 2004 10:37 AM

It was a draw which helps Bush.

This is NOT the 2000 debates because you didn't have an incumbent in 2000. You had two relatively unknowns in 2000 (yeah, yeah I know that Gore was VP for 8 years but he wasn't running as Clinton and the average Joe doesn't care about the VP). In 2004, you have President Bush and he is a known entity (you either love him or hate him; but at least you know where he stands). Other than political junkies, people don't know much about Kerry other than some none-too-flattering things because of a pretty effective Swifties, Bush and Republican campaign. Second, most of the voters are adults and they understand that right now, the world is a serious place because we have 3000 dead New Yorkers and there are really terrible people who are trying to kill us. This isn't 1992, 1996 or 2000 when the Cold War was over and we could focus things other than national security concerns. During the Cold War (the last era when adults ran the show), the voters were acting like adults because the security of the nation was on the line.

Last night Kerry didn't do poorly but he didn't do splendidly. Bush didn't do poorly but he didn't do splendidly and there is this perception that Bush isn't Winston Churchill or even Tony Blair when it comes to debating. So, the left has been portraying Bush as this incredible moron who can't tie his shoes yet he does a great job against this super-smart Senator. Super-smart nuanced Senator says, "I could do it better" but doesn't tell us how. That is hard to pull-off.

The undecided voter isn't going to go for nuance when it comes to security, war and terrorism.

Posted by: pchuck at October 1, 2004 10:44 AM

The debate will give the Dem base and MSM new life, they came up for a few deep breaths of air last night after having been below waterline level for way to long. The analogy above regarding Bush in a rope a dope is a good one in that Kerry may have hurt himself still more by a number of screwy (new) policy positions that OJ has pointed out and the fact that Bush played good policy defence and managed not to get hurt on substance. However, he did miss the chance for knockout I feel. I have no idea how many people will watch the VP debates, but I will venture a guess Chenney won't miss the punches on Johhny Edwards.

How Bush could have literally leaned on the podium all night is beyond me, and the constant pensive looks over to Kerry were inexcusable as well. He was clearly having his Tim Russart interview night rather than his performance at the RNC. His handlers should figure out what puts Bush in mush mouth mode and get it under control. The guy looked tired. I wonder if the 3 interviews with O'reilly were wise. He needs to look fresh and presidential next debate - Perry

Posted by: Perry at October 1, 2004 11:14 AM


They focus group stuff like the podium lean.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 11:24 AM

Are you guys seriously worried that the election will be decided by posture? How 9/10 of you.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 1, 2004 11:25 AM

I was hitting a few blogs as the debate started just to get immediate impressions. The consensus was Bush was coming off like doo-doo. Now, if this was all calculated by karl rove, more power to him but they were doing cartwheels on the daily kos, messages were piling up so fast, server went down first 3 minutes. Granted it takes 300 messages over there to make one intelligent one on Brothersjudd but why put yourself in a hole with bad debate technique? The time to lean in and pound is when emphasis is needed, not to hold yourself up all night.

Dave, nobody said bad posturewas going to lose the election for Bush, just critiqueing the debate is all - Perry

Posted by: Perry at October 1, 2004 11:38 AM

Kerry didn't win decisively which is what he needed to do. However, if he can perform this good in the other debates, he probably just needs one great moment to pull even. If Kerry demonstrates consistency in winning the debates, he can pull some votes. If Bush wins either of the next ones, then there will probably be no traction.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 1, 2004 11:52 AM

It is all about substance folks, it is all about substance. Bush had it last night and Kerry just didn't. After watching the debate, do you know where Kerry stands and has this been consistent with his statements in the past (heck within the past year)?

Posted by: pchuck at October 1, 2004 2:11 PM


I was particularly struck by your comment that Bush "chose to play defense" last night. As any old wargamer knows, the defense always has a tactical advantage, especially if it's in a decent field position (high ground, on the opposite side of a river, etc.) and the attacker has to have at least a 3-to-1 superiority at the point of contact in order to have a reasonable expectation of winning the combat. Kerry was never able to assemble that kind of rhetorical power last night. It was more like, again in wargaming terms, a 1-to-1 "exchange" (in wargames, when that result happens, both sides have to lose some units) but Kerry had more to lose, in the long term, than Bush did. He probably did shore up his position with the base but how will the undecideds react? In essence, I'm with Robert Duquette (see his first post in this thread).

Posted by: Joe at October 1, 2004 7:27 PM