Presidential Debates: Advantage Kerry

Posted on September 30, 2004

After all of the niggling over the height of the podiums, the gameshow warning lights and buzzers, the temperature of the auditorium and the prohibition against the candidates talking directly to each other, the first of the presidential debates finally got underway.

For the Kerry camp, the debate was a crucial milestone in the campaign. And it appears that the Bush campaign miscalculated when it insisted on such strict time limits for the candidates' responses: for tonight, John Kerry was articulate, charming and -- gasp -- concise. Yes, that's right: he didn't ramble or explain too much or qualify any of his answers, as he has been wont to do in the past. He was calm, collected and in command of his facts. He was decisive and bold.

President Bush, on the other hand, bumbled and fumbled his answers and actually got off message. Presidential advisor Karen Hughes was clearly devastated by her boss' performance. She told Wolf Blitzer that the president did a good job, but her demeanor said otherwise. The normally calm Hughes looked frazzled and nervous -- she was literally sweating bullets onscreen. General Wesley Clark, on the other hand, couldn't stop grinning as he answered Wolf's questions, and then those of John Stewart on The Daily Show.

One of Bush's weirdest moments was when he demanded extra time and then ranted about it being a MISTAKE to talk to Kim Jong-Il of North Korea. "We can't talk directly to him!" It was just bizarre, really -- Kerry, on the other hand calmly advocated talking directly with North Korea, and also continuing multilateral talks.

Kerry also finally put a flip-flopping charge to rest by admitting that he misspoke when he said that he voted for the $87 billion spending bill before he voted against it. "I made a mistake in how I talked about the war; The president made a mistake by going to war. Which is worse?" The president, famous for his malapropisms and misstatements seemed flummoxed.

The networks gleefully violated the "no cutaway" rules that the Bush camp insisted on, and it really hurt Bush. When Kerry scored points, Bush smirked, then looked annoyed, then looked really angry. He also rolled his eyes a lot. Kerry, by contrast, seemed to know where the camera was. He smiled and took notes as Bush talked. He looked calm and focused. Bush looked rattled and angry.

So, to sum up: Advantage Kerry. But it's far from over. There are two more debates and a long month of October campaigning to go. But there is no joy in the Bush camp tonight, regardless of what the spinmeisters may say.

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