ANNANDALE, Va. -- The story line this weekend will be that President Bush did a lot better, and John Kerry not as well, in their second debate. The only worry now is that in Arizona Wednesday the two will again be behind lecterns, which will once again play to Kerry's advantage and Bush's distinct disadvantage.
The Washington Post's often astute, sometimes maddening TV critic Tom Shales has already declared Bush the St. Louis winner on style, Kerry on the winner on substance. Coming from a Dan Rather liberal, that's saying something. Specifically, that Kerry lost on both counts. In liberal eyes the fix is always in on substance -- by definition there's no way a nonliberal can win here. What's more, the superiority on that front is supposed to go hand in hand with stylistic command. When it doesn't, it's a dark day indeed.
Poor Kerry. Without a lectern to tower over, he was a freak show. Perhaps John Edward can sue the television camera manufacturers. But exposed in his thin tallness on the stage floor, particularly when caught in profile, Kerry came across as some sad mix of scarecrow and arthritis sufferer, unable to bend his back at all or even take an unstiff step.
Bush by contrast thrived. No longer short he was in his sauce -- because he was among people. It's no accident his best performances have always seen him in a sea of humanity. (Yes, even on the USS Lincoln.) He was made to be seen with others. He easily leads because he likes and is liked by those he serves.
Kerry is another matter entirely. As someone has said, he can't help but treat people like help, and even to remind them they're help. Has anyone ever said anything more revealing than Kerry Friday night, apropos his tax hike promises on higher income brackets, when he said: "And looking around here, at this group here, I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me, and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too."
And looking around here, in this tacky auditorium? At this group of obvious nobodies? That's what he meant. By the way, he forgot to include his wife among the high rollers in the room. Or to convey any understanding of the American dream, more importantly.
There were some surprises. The awfulness of the town hall format was mitigated by the participation of some fine and serious citizens. The few dolts gave themselves away, usually by not having the good grace to wear a tie to such an event or being able to read the question they themselves had composed. The pointed questions seemed mainly directed at Kerry, and they all came from women. In response to Ann Bronsing's question about why no further attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, Kerry stumbled badly, his practiced smoothness suddenly giving way to confusion ("…it's not a question of when, it's a question of -- excuse me -- not a question of if, it's a question of when. We've been told that") and lots of filler about the need for good intelligence. Before he was done he jumped back to answer an earlier questioner. (He did that several times in the evening, picking up on John Edwards' bad habit.) Two pro-life questions just about finished him off, in part because they allowed Bush to drive home some key points, but also because they brought out the NARAL side of Kerry which requires him to use the mother's health excuse as his reason for backing partial birth abortion and to oppose parental notification because all teen pregnancies apparently stem from incestuous rape.
Charlie Gibson will hear it from his colleagues for allowing those questions through. But has there been a lovelier and sweeter young American at such an event than Sarah Degenhart, who asked the second pro-life question? You have to wonder what tax bracket she'll end up in when she gets to heaven.