Bush won the debate last night.
Yes, yes, all the snap polls and focus groups, like most of the talking heads, say that Kerry won. It was stylistically his best performance in memory. He certainly passed the "looks Presidential" test. The lights indicating the time limit, which everyone, including me, thought would hurt Kerry, turned out to be great for him, forcing him to adjust his rhetorical style for the better; it was in fact Bush who went over time once.
But here's a quick test of last night's electoral effect: what do you remember a day later, off the top of your head?
Chances are, it's that Kerry called Iraq "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time." Or that it is bad to send "mixed messages" (or "mixed signals"). Bush said each of these things seven times (Kerry, attempting to parry Bush's thrusts, said "mixed messages" another three times). Kerry spoke competently on each point of debate, but swing voters aren't going to walk around with his talking points in mind -- he only brought up rushing to war three times, for example.
Kerry scored some real rhetorical blows, but he didn't hammer them home as he should have. The failure to catch bin Laden in Tora Bora is a real vulnerability, and while Kerry wisely brought it up early, he only mentioned it again once. While Bush may have the better half of the argument over the efficacy of bilateral vs. multilateral talks with Pyongyang, and the Clintonites may bear much of the blame for the progress of North Korea's nuclear program, but the fact that the missiles went online recently is, at bottom, a big problem for the President. By the time Kerry brought up North Korea, casual viewers -- and the typical swing voter is about as casual as they come -- may have already tuned out.
And Kerry's performance, as good as it was by his standards, was still marred by a few gaffes. That his idea of a superior president is one who asks foreign leaders "What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?" is not the best image for Kerry to project. Romantically invoking a meeting with Charles de Gaulle in Paris does little to dispel the perception of excessive France-friendliness. And the notion of "global test" for when preemption is okay left Bush open to zing him for wanting to let international popularity trump national interest.
Matt Drudge posted last night that Kerry advisors were unknowingly caught in a candid conversation by C-SPAN's cameras where Joe Lockhart told Mike McCurry that "the consensus is it was a draw." Lockhart is more or less correct. And that's why I say Bush won. Kerry might get a small bounce in the polls, but probably not enough to fundamentally change the trajectory of the race.
Is the election over? Not yet -- despite the consensus that last night's would be by far the most important match-up, something in the upcoming debates could prove far more relevant. A lot can change in a month. For the moment, though, Bush's small edge is likely to remain.
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