I just flipped off the volume on the TV so that I could try to put down some initial impressions of the debate before being inundated by the spin from both sides and the endless pundit chatter.
For the first ten minutes or so, my pained reaction was, "Where did we get these two guys?"
I'm going from memory here without reviewing the text or anything. But I remember thinking that John Kerry's first answer was awfully meandering and unfocused. A laundry list, playing exactly to the critique of him.
But then President Bush was just as bad in his own way.
Soon enough, though, both guys settled down to their game.
From there I thought Kerry got better, sharper and more focused as the debate progressed. Roughly speaking, I thought he was at his best in the second third of the debate. He was clear. And he hit on some of the central points of criticism against the president -- the lack of a plan in Iraq, the failure to come clean on what's really happening there, turning the president's 'strong leadership' into stubborn obstinacy, etc.
There were certainly no Ronald Reagan moments. But there were several times when Kerry landed solid punches that the president seemed unable to counter.
President Bush hit on his core messages again and again: Kerry changes his positions, perseverance, no mixed messages, etc. His campaign will be glad he kept driving those points home.
But there were a number of times through the debate where the president stumbled through responses and seemed almost lost. More than a few times he appeared to struggle to fill up the alloted time.
Where he was strong were those few times in which he mobilized what I think is one of his true strengths: an ability to keep his ears open to turns of phrase which can be used against his opponent, ones that allow him to cast himself as a no-nonsense tough-guy and his opponent as either feckless or weak. To me, it's an ear for the cadence of a rancid populism. But that's a subjective view. The relevant point is that it is a strength.
Two things stand out to me about the debate.
First, for most of the 90 minutes Kerry kept the initiative and kept the president on the defensive. The president was able to parry many of those challenges, at least in a way that would be convincing to his supporters or those inclined to support his policies. But I was surprised how few times President Bush brought the debate to Kerry or got him on the defensive. The standard bludgeon lines the president and his surrogates have been using against Kerry for months only barely got into play. When they did, Kerry came back quickly.
I remember that when both men came out to shake hands at the outset, President Bush came out quicker and shook hands with Kerry on his own side of the stage. I took this as the president's way of getting in Kerry's face, asserting dominance. But that's not how the rest of the 90 minutes went.
My point isn't that Kerry clobbered the president or anything. But for most of the 90 minutes I thought Kerry held the initiative, keeping the energy of the debate on questions about the president's record.
It's the second point however that is, I think, the really big deal about this debate.
If you look at the dynamics of this race and the small but durable lead President Bush has built up over the last month, it comes less from people becoming more enamored of President Bush or his policies as it has from a steep decline in confidence in Sen. Kerry.
To put it bluntly, the Bush campaign has created an image of Kerry as a weak and indecisive man, someone that -- whatever you think of President Bush -- just can't be trusted to keep the country safe in these dangerous times.
Often they've made him into an object of contempt.
Whatever else you can say about this debate, though, whatever you think of his policies, I don't think that's how Kerry came off. I think he came off as forceful and direct. And I suspect that most people who were at all genuinely undecided came away from the 90 minutes with that impression.
If President Bush's current lead is built not upon confidence in him or his policies but in a simple belief that Kerry isn't solid enough to be president, then I think this performance could help Kerry a good deal.