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Bottom Line

While this was hardly a crushing victory to Kerry, it's hard for me to see it as anything other than an unmitigated win. What, exactly, did Bush accomplish here? Argue that Kerry's a flip-flopper? But that's been all over the place -- everyone in America's heard it already. This time people at least got to see Kerry's response. Will it convince all of them? No, but it'll convince more of them than get convinced by one-sided media coverage. Meanwhile, Kerry got to bring home some points that haven't gotten a lot of play so far. Things like we should be killing Osama bin Laden and the president doesn't know what he's talking about, a deft and, shall we say, nuanced handling of the dishonesty issue. A Kerry win -- not a big one, but a real one -- and it's a game of inches.

September 30, 2004 | Permalink


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Bush has had so little practice with the name 'Osama bin Laden' in recent years that he couldn't say it.

Nuff said.

Posted by: ahem | Sep 30, 2004 11:55:46 PM

I have seen every televised Presidential debate since the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and this is the biggest, most obvious victory I have ever seen. Bush seemed to be reduced to the excuse, "it's hard work", which he repeated ad nauseum thru the first half of the debate. Kerry was presidential, honest, courteous, precise, direct, focused, and a winner!!

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Sep 30, 2004 11:56:25 PM

Kerry brought up my favorite topic twice -- Bin Laden got away at Tora Bora and it's Bush's fault.

Posted by: Mike | Oct 1, 2004 12:11:03 AM

I have to disagree that this wasn't a "crushing" victory. It absolutely was.

Posted by: Carla | Oct 1, 2004 12:14:20 AM

I have to say that I went in thinking Kerry would do poorly and I really think he ended up soundly defeating Bush in every way that matters. I watched Fox afterwards for the spin and even their commentators could barely find a single positive thing to say about Bush's performance. While I always knew that Kerry was smarter and far better informed than Bush, I was amazed at how clearly that came accross in the debate itself. Kerry sounded clear, decisive, and in command of his ideas. And I don't even like the guy or many of his policy ideas much!

Posted by: Wei Jeirufu | Oct 1, 2004 12:18:21 AM

Definitely a fine performance by Kerry, and an uncomfortable one by the President. I agree with the Stefanopoulos that Kerry succeeded in keeping the focus on Bush's performance as President, where he wins better. Bush was sufficiently competent that he certainly won't lose his base, and he actually came off better in the bilateral vs multilateral negotiations with N. Korea. I'm sure a lot of Americans will be confused on that one, since Kerry is supposed to be the bring in more parties guy. I could certainly use some education on it, and if Bush fumbled the bilateral talks and the multilateral talks had to start later as a back-up plan, then Kerry should have done a better job explaining what happened and what he would change now. Probably pretty hard to do in the time allotted.

If Kerry remains as composed and confident in all of the debates as he did in this one, though, the cumulative effect will almost certainly be enough to turn the tide with the swing voters. My hope is that the swing voters are going to matter a lot less than the new voters who are motivated to vote for the first time, and my guess is that those will break at least 60/40 for Kerry, and that they are severely underrepresented in the polls you see.

Finally I was surprised that the debates had as much substance as they did. After seeing Farah on NOW the other night my expectations in that regard were very low. I think some of the credit there goes to Lehrer doing a better job than he did four years ago.

Posted by: Walker Willingham | Oct 1, 2004 12:20:30 AM

The Tora Bora comments were good from Kerry- there really no good response Bush can make to that- except to dispute whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora at all, and that would only highlight the fact that we still don't know where he is- 3 years after 9/11.

Posted by: Ricky Barnhart | Oct 1, 2004 12:23:54 AM

Big win. At least.

Posted by: Harrison | Oct 1, 2004 12:25:23 AM

Are you kidding? Not a clear victory for Kerry? An undecided Republican-leaning friend of mine and I were trading emails during the debate. He's near tears at how bad Bush lost.

The one card Bush has always had is that he looks like a solid guy who you'd trust. The Bush on stage in Coral Gables looked like he was barely holding himself together - no self-control at all. I don't think that's something the American people forgive in a president.

Posted by: Geoffrey Williams | Oct 1, 2004 12:25:45 AM

I was pleased with Kerry's performance, but I wish he had answered head on the rhetorical question "what kind of message do we send our allies and our troops when we say that this is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time?" The answer--of course--ought to have been a Lloyd Benson-like put down: 'I'll tell you what the message it is that we send: we send the unequivocal message that change is on the way. We send the message that we have the courage to face our mistakes, and to rectify them. We send a message of integrity to the global community, and a message of hope to our troops. We send the unequivocal message that we shall not put our men and women on harm's way simply to project an aura of infallibility.'

Posted by: pedro | Oct 1, 2004 12:29:24 AM

"While this was hardly a crushing victory to Kerry, it's hard for me to see it as anything other than an unmitigated win."

Kerry passed the CiC test tonight.

If you understand the rules of this particular game, you understand just how crucially important that is.

For the first time since the SBVT stuff started, it's Kerry's race to lose again.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 1, 2004 12:34:07 AM

Amazing performance by Kerry. No, not on substance, and no knockout punches or anything. But he was more of a man than Bush.

Posted by: Barbar | Oct 1, 2004 12:53:19 AM

Kerry did a fantastic job tonight. He was clear, strong, decisive and commanding - and he did it all while staying respectful of the President. I thought he had to "go medieval" on Bush. But he did something better. He conveyed a dignified, statesmanlike power. He also managed to communicate a very subtle, gracious sense of confident superiority, without falling into the unattractive condescension that Gore showed in 2000. Kerry looked like the guy who was born to be President. I have been following Kerry's campaign for over a year now, and even though I have long known I would vote for him, this was the fist time I actually *liked* him.

The overriding message was: "it's not enough to have conviction; you have to have judgement. I have conviction in spades, but I also have much better judgment than the President." He sold it beautifully.

Bush was at times defensive, insecure and peevish. Sometimes he almost seemed to be defending his intelligence, as when he kept insisting "I know how the world works." It reminded me of the scene in Godfather II when Michael confronts his halfwit older brother, played by John Casale. Casale is mad that Michael is the one who is in charge, and yells something like "I'm smart! I know things!"

Bush did the same sort of thing early in his term when he got ticked at a White House reporter who had the nerve to ask Jacque Chirac a question in French.

Bush also seemed to convey resentment of the very fact that he has to answer to anybody. It was like he was saying: "I'm King George, and there is a war on! This whole democracy/election thing is a nuissance and sends a mixed message to our enemies. Who are you guys to question me?!"

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 1, 2004 12:56:09 AM

The Washington Monthly thread on the debate, which has real-time comments from liberals, the reactions on the fly are mostly ecstatic -- even relieved, surprised. "I can't believe it, but Kerry is really whupping ass!" That kind of thing.

The NRO "Corner" page, which does the same thing for conservatives, the comments are predictably dismissive of Kerry but the mood is that AT BEST Bush got a draw. They've got the guy who's winning and whose debate presence is supposed to work well at home on TV, and they were quite open about giving Kerry a lot of credit, that he had a better debate.

Further: Howard Fineman said something very instructive on MSNBC. He said that when he covers these debates, afterward in the spin room he doesn't listen so much as look and watch, see whose spinners are actually happy or unhappy. He said that the Bush defenders were palpably "glum" and that the Kerry defenders practically "skipped" into the room because they were so eager to talk about the debate. In addition, the entire MSNBC table said Kerry won.

So don't believe the hype (and there will be plenty): Kerry was very good, Bush was pretty bad. That's how people saw it in the first couple of hours afterward.

Posted by: priceyeah | Oct 1, 2004 12:56:42 AM

Scarbrough spun it as the "cowboy vs the professor." Those people who want the president to be just folks like themselves, weird freaks tho they may, probably weren't horrified. Mike Kinsley said Bush looked overcoached, and I have this of Karen Hughes with a whip saying in Bush's earpiece "Mixed message, mixed message dammit." Bush was trying too hard, and the poor boy gets confused with more than one talking point.

Substance? Doesn't matter a whit.

Nice young kid on Charlie Rose, center-right, who name I can't quite remember....Mark Halprin? something....put his career in jeopardy by saying we need to see how the semiotics are analyzed. I can't believe a commentator would use such language on TV.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 1, 2004 12:56:49 AM

If I were running KE04 or DNC or MoveOn.org, this is the soundbite I would hammer mercilessly into every interview, ad, etc.:

"First of all, I know Bin Laden attacked us. I know that.


The President had to remind the American public that he remembers who Osama bin Laden is. That can't be good.

Posted by: priceyeah | Oct 1, 2004 12:57:55 AM

If Bush was the challenger, this debate would have ended his chances of winning the election.

Posted by: synykyl | Oct 1, 2004 12:59:58 AM

I was surprised: I thought it was actually a pretty revealing debate, one that could truly, plausibly change some minds. Not many, certainly, but some. After tonight, Kerry is known better--and so (to his handlers likely regret) is Bush. (My take here.)

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Oct 1, 2004 1:04:22 AM

Two bits of kerry that set this Democrat's teeth on edge:

1. near the start of the debate, when he turned to Lehrer to complain that Bush was breaking the Debate Agreement.

2. "like the president, I too believe that Osama Bin Laden should be hunted down.

Posted by: yikes | Oct 1, 2004 1:04:48 AM


Good point. I had forgotten that one, but it was another case of Bush seemingly defending his intelligence.

Later, he did a good job in showing he knew the difference between enriched uranium and plutonium, but then he looked a little too pleased with himself, like a poor student who just surprised the teacher by getting the extra credit question right.

The great thing is that there are two more of these debates, and now Bush has to feel Kerry has his number. He's going to be feeling a lot of pressure Tuesday.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 1, 2004 1:04:52 AM

Be assured that right now, Bush supporters are doing everything in their power to spin this loss for Bush into a victory. Gore's evident win in the first 2000 debate turned into a 15-point Bush victory within a week, three times the second largest of all time.
That is why it is worth voting in media polls and emailing or phoning major outlets. Atrios has a list on contacts, and Digby at Hullabaloo has a fuller one (including for instance the email for Peter Jennings). An hour ago, CNN and MSNBC polls had Kerry as winner by 70%+. Headlines and articles are built out of this.

Posted by: John Isbell | Oct 1, 2004 1:05:05 AM

We need a leader who can stay focused; not a flip-flopper.

Bush started out saying he would bring down bin Laden and al Qaeda, and then changed his mind and went after Saddam instead.

And I was shocked to hear the Bush thinks we shouldn't confront North Korea one-on-one, but that we should outsource our security to a committee lead by the Communist Chinese.

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 1, 2004 1:13:17 AM

We leftishes say we hate the way the media has always focused on sighs and tics at the expense of the issues, but hold on, media, we take it all back. Kerry was the clear winner in gravitas, sincerity, calmness and lack of tics tonight. Go ahead and focus on tics all you want, media, we love it. Sorry we criticized you for that. Sorry, sorry.

Posted by: James of DC | Oct 1, 2004 1:17:35 AM

John Isabell is correctamundo. The repubs have a war room spinning the debate live (according to cbs marketwatch anyway) so the dems need to hit back hard any way they can. Write, email, hit that mouse button. Push this into a true victory in the eyes of the media.

Posted by: heet | Oct 1, 2004 1:24:52 AM

I figure that there'll be plenty of Bush supporters spinning it Bush's way, but for now I agree with Jay Nordlinger (I mean, his assessment of how Bush did in the debate, not his adoration of Bush).

Posted by: Gloop | Oct 1, 2004 1:36:21 AM

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