My perspectives on the debate aren’t much different than Rocket Man’s. However, I think President Bush may have had a somewhat better night than Rocket seems to suggest. Sure, the president fluffed a few lines and didn’t score all the points that were available to him. But I thought he edged out Kerry during the foreign policy portion of the debate, held his own during the domestic portion, and had a more effective closing statement.
I also think Bush won on appearance tonight. More importantly, my wife (a genuinely undecided voter, unlike most of tonight’s Missouri interrogators) thought so too. I was concerned that Bush was hurting himself on the “likeability” side by talking too vehemently, but my wife, a much better judge of these things, was impressed by his forcefulness and command. And, whereas she thought (as I did) that Kerry looked very good in the first debate, she was not impressed with the Senator tonight. I wrote down the following comments: “he looks much less comfortable” and, at one point, “he looks a little frightening; what’s all that red under his eye?” As the night went on, and Bush realized he was doing well, he toned things down and started making jokes. This is the Bush we’ve been waiting for. Kerry made no meaningful attempts at humor and smiled much less than in the first debate, though he did smirk a few times. Bush managed to remain deadpan, and even tried a joking reference to the scowling of the first debate. Advantage, Bush.
But let’s assume that my bias is interfering with my judgment and the debate was a draw. Where would this leave us? If Kerry had lost the first debate and drawn the second, his candidacy would probably be as good as dead. But I believe that voters will give a sitting president a second chance, as they did Ronald Reagan. Indeed, I think that, as with Reagan though to a lesser extent, voters want to re-elect Bush. That’s my explanation for why, when events are in stasis, Bush seems to rise in the polls. Bush falls on new bad news or poor debating. Kerry seems to fall when there’s no clear explanation for any movement (although his supporters might point to Karl Rove as the explanation). If I’m correct that voters want to re-elect the president, then tonight’s debate, even if only a draw, should help Bush. I wouldn’t expect anything too dramatic in the next few days, however. Kerry substantially cut down his “negatives” in the first debate, and I doubt that they will rise much, if at all, as a result of tonight. I think the polls will continue to show an extremely close race tonight. But when the undecided voters make their last minute decisions, I think they will tend to break for Bush, unless he backslides in the last debate.
One final point for now. Remember when Kerry was asked why he thinks there have been no successful terrorist attacks in this country since 9/11? That’s really a central question in this election, and Kerry knows it. The absence of such an attack may be the main reason why (if I’m right) voters want to re-elect Bush. Recently, I heard the first half hour of a debate between the Wisconsin Senate candidates. The Republican candidate mentioned the absence of any attack at least five times in that half hour. Bush can’t mention it, for obvious reasons. But it’s still a huge plus for him right now.
Not surprisingly, then, Kerry was much less glib than normal when he addressed this question. The question cried out for him to give Bush a little credit, but obviously he couldn’t do that. So he quoted the president as saying that the question, when it comes to another attack, is not “if” but “when.” Yet this answer is perilous for Kerry too because polls consistently show that voters trust Bush more on the matter of fighting terrorism. Thus, on this fundamental question — perhaps the most fundamental one for the average voter — Kerry was in a no-win situation, and looked it.
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