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Oct 2, 2004 2:40 am


The Debate



Kerry seems to have "won" the debate. I don’t have much faith in the wisdom of the American people. If we put up the bill of rights to a vote it would lose. But they seem to have figured out that Kerry offered more substance and enough sizzle last night to be judged the winner.

This augers well for the Kerry campaign. In every one of the 9 past elections in which presidential debates were held the perceived winner of the debates went on to win the election. (Reagan lost the first debate with Mondale in 1984 but won a smashing victory in the second debate, overshadowing his earlier loss.)

Further, two candidates who had been ahead in the polls before the debates--Nixon in 1960 and Carter in 1980--fell back in the polls following their sorry performances and ended up losing.

Given this history Kerry is well-positioned to turn the race around.

Republicans inadvertently contributed to Kerry's victory.

For months they have been creating cartoonish caricatures of Kerry. Since most Americans didn't know Kerry these mindless images of him as a French/over-educated/snobby/wind-surfing/military-bashing/prig took hold. But the images were so beyond the truth that when Americans watched Kerry last night and were impressed the case the Republicans have been building against Kerry suddenly became untenable. I like Kerry and I was shocked how good he was. To those who had bought into the stereotypes they must have nearly fallen out of their chairs.

In other words, as so often happens in politics, the Republicans had overreached. If they had been a bit more subtle maybe voters wouldn't have been so unprepared for the real human being who graced their screens last night.

Now the Democrats have also been overreaching, creating cartoonish images of Bush. But we already know Bush. When he stood up there and was able to hold his own and not appear stupid e weren't really surprised. We've seen this Bush before. So the Michael Moore simpleton stereotypes of Bush didn't have the same unfortunate affect on the audience as the Republican simpleton stereotypes of Kerry.

Immediate poll results from CBS indicated that the public indeed as willing to give Kerry a good hard second look. A clear majority of swing voters said Kerry won the debate. A small minority (under 30%) thought Bush had won.

There will be 2 more debates, but this was the big one. It may well have decided the election. At the least it's a key turning point in the election thus far.

In retrospect the Bush people must be kicking themselves for making foreign policy the topic of the first debate. They agreed to this because they believe that the public thinks well of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism. But the public also agrees by some 60 percent that the war in Iraq is going badly. This gave Kerry the opening he needed to hammer Bush relentlessly. He did so deftly and at the end made Bush so angry he appeared petulant. Bush even did something I hadn't seen him do since 2000 when he seemed scared of the camera. He finished a few answers by pecking at it like a bird. For a guy who is supposed to seem at ease with himself, he looked decidedly nervous.

If you didn't know which man was president would you have thought it was Bush or Kerry?

Of course, debates always give challengers an opportunity to appear presidential merely by appearing on the same stage with the incumbent. Mondale failed to take advantage of that opportunity in 1984. Last night Kerry did.

My guess is that after the debate not only swing voters gave him a second look but even his own supporters. Many have admitted they were less Kerry-supporters than Bush-haters. After the debate many are probably thinking they'll vote for Kerry enthusiastically.

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