Polls the next few days will be fascinating. One can imagine them moving in any of several directions as America digests what it heard and saw in the first presidential debate.
Going into this debate, the Kerry Campaign was sliding off a cliff. Had Senator John Kerry lost on Thursday night, the election would be over. During the debate Kerry grabbed a tree near the cliff and stopped his slide, although he did little to move away from the cliff.
Going into the debate, Bush was beginning to soar beyond Kerry's reach to easy victory. Democrats were beginning to distance themselves from their candidate, who was starting to look like a landslide loser. My guess is that Thursday's debate will halt that Bush acceleration and freeze the polls near where they were on Thursday morning.
Bush lost an opportunity to put the race away. This might cost Bush tossup states like New Jersey, where he was close to taking a lead and sending the Kerry campaign into a downward spiral to its doom.
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith observed on PBS that Kerry came off as the smartest kid in the class -- and Bush seemed like a world-weary professor swatting the know-it-all kid away.
I'm not sure I agree, but this comparison approaches the apple-vs-orange, neither-really-"won" impression the debate made on me. (But I was predisposed to declare Bush the winner....so my response is not entirely sanguine.)
Grading both, I'd give Bush a B+/A- on content -- he said the right things. But I'd give him a C- on what seemed a shorthand and almost dyslexic delivery of those proper facts and ideas.
Instead of visiting hurricane victims before the debate, Bush should have conserved his energy and taken a nap.
(Kerry got a manicure...probably in an attempt to get in touch with his feminine side to reclaim his fleeing female voters. Kerry knows that he cannot close his huge gender gap deficit with male voters, where in some polls he trails Bush by 10 points or more.)
Bush seemed tired, unfocused, repetitive, almost at times spaced-out, but had moments in which he was energetic, lucid and sharp.
Bush's strongest moments came when talking about his meeting with a woman whose soldier husband died in Iraq, and when he credited Kerry for raising nice daughters.
These moments showed the sincerity and humanity at President Bush’s core and touched the hearts of men and women alike.
I'd give Kerry a C+ on content, a C- for his self-contradictions, but a B+ on style and delivery. He laid on his statesman act thickly enough to cover most of the dishonest cheap-shot spitballs he interjected into his flow of words.
Even so, Kerry never achieved warmth or likeability. When he remembered to smile late in the debate, it seemed forced and unnatural, contorting the pessimist wrinkles his Botox injections have concealed on the outside but that remain on Kerry’s inside.
Kerry seemed a triumph of the taxidermist’s art. Two of the great advantages of being the candidate of Hollywood leftists are cash and cosmetics, the access Kerry has to the best movie make-up artists.
Kerry was generally steady, except for one moment early in the debate when he for 30 seconds showed signs of crumbling. This controlled (if fact-flawed, logic-flawed and contradictory) performance will buck up his base and win back some waverers who had been inclined to vote for him.
But Kerry did not seem like somebody we'd want to hear and see every night on our TV screens for four years or more.
Bush should have hammered (as my War Blog observations here did a few days ago) on a theme he only touched for two seconds -- that Kerry called our Iraq allies such as Great Britain a “coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted.” President Bush could have pointed out how Kerry’s statement has poisoned relations with allies like England, Australia, Italy and Poland and damaged coalition efforts in Iraq.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with Kerry's outrageous statement, and Bush should have spelled out its implications in detail and driven this home to the audience. My suggestion at War Blog was that President Bush ask if Senator Kerry regarded our ally Great Britain as a bribed or as a coerced coalition partner.
He could even have (rhetorically) asked Kerry to apologize for this and for
impugning the integrity of the acting Prime Minister of Iraq (an outrage the President also mentioned but did not press).
This could have exploded all Kerry's claims that he has the diplomatic skills to bring allies to our side. “Senator Kerry,” President Bush could have asked, “how would you as President be able to win the support or the trust of our most important allies after you described them in front of the world as ‘bribed’ and ‘bought’?”
Had President Bush been less dignified, he could also have referred here to "Italy, the country where you, Senator Kerry, courted your first wife at her family's beachside villa."
No, this would be too unseemly....a bridge too far, even though it would remind women of Kerry's faithlessness, opportunism and the kind of wealthy internationalist women whose money Kerry has used to put himself on the debate platform next to faithful husband of one wife George W. Bush.
Mr. Bush began to convey the burden that serious Presidents always carry, a burden of responsibility we forgot during the playboy party years of Bill Clinton leaving stains on the Oval Office carpet.
A mere candidate like Senator Kerry can say whatever politically-advantageous lie pops into his head, as former debate foe Gov. William Weld had warned was typical of Kerry. A President’s every word can echo around the world and have serious consequences, and therefore a President must speak carefully.
Even now, Senator Kerry seems not to understand that in many foreign lands he is already seen as what in their parliamentary systems is called the “shadow President,” the leader of our nation if the ruling parties change places.
President Bush understands this and should have spelled out for the American people that when Kerry and his campaign underlings called the Prime Minister of Iraq a liar and a puppet, they were destabilizing Iraq and encouraging terrorist attempts to undermine or overthrow the current government there. When Kerry called our coalition allies “bought” and “bribed,” he was legitimizing attacks against their soldiers by terrorists and against their elected leaders by political rivals.
As a Senator and son of a State Department functionary, Kerry knows this. These are the “mixed signals” President Bush rightly condemned but was wrong not to explain to the American people. The President should have asked Kerry during the debate to join him in presenting a united front against terror in Iraq.
Or the President could have observed that only the most cynical kind of politician sends mixed signals that encourage attacks against American troops and then tries to benefit politically from those attacks.
Whether inadvertently or by design, this is what Senator Kerry is doing. Kerry should stop, apologize and….were he an honorable person….resign from this race to atone for having encouraged the killing of Americans.
(Kerry has yet to apologize to the families of those thousands of names etched in the Vietnam War Memorial for his similar role in prolonging the killing in that war by his encouragement of Communist forces there.)
And here’s another judgment call President Bush apparently made. The terrorists already influenced an election in Spain, President Bush could have said, and are right now trying to influence voters of our ally Australia…and here. The President could have done this without invoking a phrase that has clung to anti-Vietnam War activist Kerry for a third of a century – “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” But he apparently decided that saying this, in his father’s phrase, wouldn’t be prudent.
To close this debate, President Bush might have said – or might say to close one of his two coming debates – something like this:
"I’ve always lived my life in a world of deeds, not words. I'm not the most articulate person in America, and I learned early on the truth of that old saying: ‘Talk is cheap.’
“My opponent Senator Kerry spoke with great eloquence about his vote authorizing war in Iraq. And he spoke with equal eloquence about why he voted against the $87 billion for body armor for our troops sent to Iraq in accord with his vote as a Senator.
"Senator Kerry speaks eloquently on whatever side of an issue he takes on any given day.
That’s what champion debaters like him train to do – skillfully argue either side of an issue based on that day’s flip of a coin.
“But, remember, whatever positions Senator Kerry took in tonight's debate he might reverse tomorrow.
“What you heard tonight has not always been his position on these issues in recent years. That's been his pattern, changing like a kaleidoscope or chameleon, for a third of a century.
"So the choice will be yours on November Second -- you can choose a man of many eloquent words that change with every shift in the political breeze, or you can choose a man of deeds who sticks to his word.
"The job of the President ultimately is not to be an eloquent speaker. It is to be someone you can trust to protect your family and our nation in these turbulent times. You have to decide whose word you can depend on."
It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback such statements, of course, by those not in the arena. At least my family heard me saying these things in real time during the debate (and for having to listen to me talking back to the television on Thursday night, they deserve your sympathy).
Mr. Ponte hosts a national radio talk show Saturdays 6-9 PM Eastern Time (3-6 PM Pacific Time) and Sundays 9 PM-Midnight Eastern Time (6-9 PM Pacific Time) on the Liberty Broadcasting network (formerly TalkAmerica). Internet Audio worldwide is at LibertyBroadcasting .com. The show’s live call-in number is 1-866-GO LOWELL (1-866-465-6935). A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader’s Digest.