Looking back over these four debates I realize that in two of the cases my judgment was significantly different than what the consensus judgment turned out to be. In the first debate I thought Kerry put on a solid performance while the president was wobbly. I thought Kerry won; but my initial impression was not that it was a rout, as the consensus judgment eventually determined. I thought the veep debate went much better for Edwards than many thought.
Having said that, I thought John Kerry won this debate. And I say that in the context of the debate itself as well as its role in the campaign now unfolding. It wasn't a trouncing. Bush did okay. But here are several reasons why I think Kerry bested the president.
Kerry looked more presidential than the president. I don't know how else to put it.
He seemed collected and forceful through the whole thing. The president, meanwhile, seemed excitable, edgy and sometimes ungrounded. Again and again with the banging the table. Perhaps after one question you can get away with a cocky look of sarcastic disbelief after your opponent stops talking. But not every other time.
At one point in the debate, after Kerry referred to two leading news organizations rejecting the president's attacks on Kerry's plan, Bush looked back at Bob Schieffer and made a crack about trusting "leading news organizations."
I don't doubt a few media bias obsessives (and probably a few CBS execs) understood that this was a dig at Scieffer's employer, CBS. But I suspect it went right over most people's heads. As well it should have. Not everyone lives in wingerville. And the president's habit of roughing people up with jocular derision doesn't work as well when the trappings of power aren't all around him.
Again, to recap, Kerry seemed more presidential than the president.
Another point struck me as similar to the first debate, very similar. Kerry controlled the tempo of the evening. He kept the president on the defensive. He landed his key points about the budget deficit and the president's avoidance of the job issue several times. On health care there was more of a tussle. But I don't think the president framed the evening in the way he and his advisors wanted -- defining Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal. He did better at that in debate number two than he did tonight.
Let me draw back now and say something about timing and the progression of the debate. I thought both candidates came out to fight. The president came in hitting hard. But Kerry stood toe-to-toe with him. And after maybe 15 or 20 minutes I thought some of the ummph went out of the president.
I watched on CSPAN, where you have the benefit of the permanent split screen. And right there at probably about the half hour mark, there were a few times when Kerry was talking and the president was looking over at him, neck slightly craned, with this odd look on his face. (My dad would probably call it a sh-t-eating grin.). And with that look of edgy hesitation the president seemed to be saying, 'You're guttin' me like a fish.'
At some level the president seemed to wobble after that. His hits about the 'global test' seemed half-hearted and poorly delivered, as did other attacks. They even struck me as a tad desperate. Sometimes he'd tack on a catch-phrase after not being able to put together an actual answer. He talked about being strong but he didn't seem strong.
A few other miscellaneous points.
The president should have used humor more. It works for him. And I mean actual humor, not the jabs at the moderator.
I thought President Bush landed some punches with his attacks on leadership as well as when he hit Kerry on spending in the abstract after Kerry was discussing so many different new programs.
On the other hand, as was the case with the veep's debate, the president just told a number of untruths. And I think that'll be used against him in the coming days. Kerry is better at thinking on his feet than using prefab lines from the debate coaches. The Tony Soprano line? ehhh ...
As for the broader context of the race. If you look at the polls right now they are about as close to an absolute tie as they could possibly be. Even a standard margin of error should -- or one might expect would -- have created a little more of a spread in the numbers. But if these guys go into election day dead even in the mid- or high 40s, that's not good at all for the president. And there does seem to be some very slight poll momentum moving in Kerry's direction. As was the case with the first debate I think the key to tonight's performance was that the public saw a very different John Kerry than the president, his vice president and their surrogates are portraying on the hustings.
The president needed to land some punches tonight. I don't think he did. I think a tie would be a narrow win for Kerry, given the broader dynamics of the race. And I don't think it was a tie.