Having listened to the whole thing very carefully, I thought it was basically a draw.
President Bush was certainly more coherent and on-his-feet than he was a week ago. But then, that's a pretty low standard. I think the president's advisors will be happy that he hit Kerry several times with the 'most liberal Senator' line. As NewDonkey noted a couple days ago, that's BC04's new pivot: liberal, liberal, liberal. I also thought there were opportunities to wallop the president that Kerry didn't take. The president showed moments of temper and irritability, but nothing that bad. Having said all that though I didn't think either candidate made any serious errors. And both did a reasonably good job pushing the issues their campaigns wanted them to push.
If I'm right and this was basically a draw, I think that represents a victory for Kerry for two reasons.
First, momentum seems clearly to be on Kerry's side. The president needed to arrest that momentum and I don't think he did.
The other reason turns on something I said last week. The basis of President Bush's resurgence in late August and September was based less on confidence in him than in his campaign's effective effort to portray Kerry as not an acceptable commander-in-chief. Kerry's strong performance in the first debate undermined that impression and knocked the race back to parity. I don't think anything happened in this debate to change that.
What I do think you'll have from this debate is some steadying of the president's supporters. Even the president's most die-hard supporters were knocked for a loop by his stammering and wobbly performance last week. After seeing this performance I think they'll feel like they saw the candidate they expected. And that will steady them and buoy their morale.
Now, as I've said from the beginning, what matters in these debates is less the 90 minute encounter than the spin war that unfolds after it ends. That's even more so with this one since on a Friday night (and given it's the second debate) the viewership will be down. That means the impressions voters take from this one will be even more determined by the post-debate chatter.
And on this I think the president and the last questioner gave the Democrats a real opportunity. The fiscal health of the country is a wreck. The country faces an unfolding disaster in Iraq. And numerous examples emerge day after day showing how that disaster grew directly from bad decisions the president made. And faced with a questioner who asked for just three mistakes he thinks he's made over four years, he couldn't come up with one. His answer was to say that on each of the big issues he's gotten everything exactly right.
If the Democrats and the Kerry campaign are smart they can use that to cut right to the president's greatest vulnerability -- the sense that he's out of touch, won't face what's happening and more than anything else won't level with the American people.
This is the line for the Dems to hit again and again. Seeing all we see on our TVs, he can't think of one wrong decision? He won't level with the public. And if he can't think of one thing he's gotten wrong, reelecting him means four years of more of the same.