Bush-Kerry Debate III: The Morning After

The punditocracy was all over the map on this one, which perhaps isn’t that surprising since my reaction and that of the Fox News panel were so at odds last night.

Fred Barnes
–a Fox panelist– titles his piece “On All Cylinders: Bush does everything you want from a candidate in a debate. ”

WHAT DO YOU want to achieve in a presidential debate? You want to hammer home your campaign themes. You want to put your opponent on the defensive. You want to sell yourself personally. And you want to avoid a gaffe or a damaging sound bite. Bush did all four in Wednesday night’s third and final nationally televised debate with John Kerry. It was his best debate performance ever and that includes his three debates with Al Gore in 2000. As a result, it may have won Bush a second White House term.

David Corn doesn’t have a snappy headline. RCP dubs it “Kerry Outperforms But Will It Matter? ”

To be continued. That is, nothing was resolved during the final encounter between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The challenger certainly outperformed the title-holder–perhaps not by much, but probably by enough for Kerry to reinforce his standing as a credible alternative to Bush. But at Arizona State University in Tempe neither man landed a decisive blow that could be expected to change the contours of the remaining campaign.

Dick Morris labels it “DRAW, ADVANTAGE KERRY.”

WHO was the genius who felt President Bush could debate John Kerry — or any Republican could debate any Democrat — over the economy, health care and Social Security, and expect to win? The Bush campaign selected James Baker, the first President George Bush’s secretary of State, to negotiate the debate’s rules. He should have insisted on no topic restrictions in any debate. Inevitably, terrorism would have dominated all three contests. By restricting the third debate to domestic policy, they gave Bush an impossible mountain to climb. Bush did well last night. Kerry did equally well. Both were aggressive, specific, and, at times, eloquent. But the debate was not a draw because the turf over which they debated was largely inherently Democratic.

Mickey Kaus reverses the take: “Gay vs. Too Straight! Tie goes to Bush.”

A technical draw that helps Bush more than Kerry. Why? a) The trend was against Bush going in to the debate; b) It’s two hours after the event. I don’t remember many specifics. I do remember that Bush was personable, upbeat, human and articulate (he seemed to have gained about 20 IQ points since debate #1) while Kerry was near-funereal. He even looked like a mortician. Where’s the Man Tan when you need it? c) The CW going in had Kerry’s campaign appealing to swing voters while Bush mobilized his base. But in the debate both moved to the center–Bush just did a better job of getting there, talking about education for minorities while Kerry was stuck defending racial set-asides. Ron Brownstein speculated , pre-debate, that Kerry’s biggest task was “untying himself from big government.” Will Marshall of the DLC said he needed to “belie the claim that he is some kind of pre-Clinton liberal.” If Kerry did either of these things, I missed it. d) My gut tells me that, contrary to voluminous polling data, many voters are looking for reassurance that it’s OK to reelect Bush. If so, I think he gave them that reassurance.

Tom Curry opines that “Kerry evades Bush knockout blow.”

With Democratic challenger John Kerry enjoying a slight momentum in the polls and President Bush not clearly scoring a knockout blow in the final joint appearance Wednesday night, it is now up to the president and his advisers to figure out how to knock Kerry off his pace in some way that he has not yet done between now and Nov. 2. The final Bush-Kerry face-off opened with all the potential to shift the race decisively from one candidate to the other. It probably did not do so.


Update (0942): WaPo has several pieces and resources related to the debate.

Their Daily Tracking Poll has it at Kerry 49, Bush 48, Nader 1. The in-depth numbers are interesting, though, in that Bush voters are slightly more certain that they will vote (88% – 85%) and slightly less apt to change their minds (5% – 8%) than Kerry voters.

Transcript: Third Presidential Debate (Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz. October 13, 2004)

David Broder saw the candidates both “Standing Tall in Their Respective Corners.”

Reprising policy battles that Republicans and Democrats have contested for decades, President Bush and challenger John F. Kerry sharpened their differences on social and domestic issues last night, with each candidate comfortably articulating the positions his most loyal supporters wanted to hear.

In the last of their three debates, Bush avoided the slumps and the scowls that marred his first test against Kerry — heeding what he said was an order from his wife — and found many occasions to categorize the senator from Massachusetts as a classic big-spending liberal. But Kerry, as unruffled as he has been throughout his confrontations with the president, did nothing to damage his prospects. Neutral observers, including some who gave Bush a narrow edge, predicted Kerry would maintain the momentum that has brought him from an underdog’s position at the start of September to rough parity with the incumbent.

Tom Shales titles his column “Bush Grins, Spins but Doesn’t Win.”

An essentially dignified and thoughtful performance by Sen. John Kerry, contrasted with an oddly giggly turn by President Bush, combined to give the last debate of the presidential campaign to the challenger last night, but very narrowly. Bush seems to have been taken apart and put back together again after each debate, reassembled according to estimates of how he’d done. Last night it looked as though his handlers had told him to smile, smile, smile, especially when Kerry was trying to make points, points, points.

I see no consensus emerging at all as to who won, which would seem to be good news for Kerry. He had the momentum going into the debate and there’s no reason to think Bush seized it back.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    The press as has been noted previously, wants Bush to lose.

    Explain to me why they’d admit it, if he won last night.

  2. James Joyner says:

    This isn’t “the press” but rather opinion columnists. I don’t know much about Curry and Corn is a lefty. Otherwise, they’re reasonably sound political analysts.

  3. ken says:

    Yes Kerry ‘won’ the debate as debates are normally scored. And that is important. But on the charactor issue the differences between these two men were glaringly apparent, and this I think is for all practical campaign purposes even more important.

    In short, Kerry is a gentleman. I can not think of any other single term that better describes him. Over the course of three debates he maintained a gentlemanly decorum that we expect of our presidents.

    Bush on the other hand was alternately aloof, angry, and clownish. Three debates, three different charactors. It brought to my mind, at least, Kubler-Ross and the three stages people go through in facing a loss. First there is denial, a refusal to face the reality of the situation. This was evident in Bushes first debate performence where he clearly didn’t want to be there to face his challanger. Second, there is anger. Watching Bush in his second debate can anyone doubt Bush was going through his angry stage? And third there is acceptance. The final debate, with a low keyed Bush, reverting back to his class clown days brings the cycle full turn. Bush knows he is a loser. He lost the first election. He will fail again. In his own subconscience mind he has has lost already. Indeed.

  4. Elrod says:

    I agree with Ken here. The most striking change in public perception has been on character: Kerry has moved up in every debate while Bush has remained the same. Kerry comes across consistently as calm, collected, able to withstand a withering attack. If voters conclude that his demeanor during these debates is an appropriate metaphor for how he’d handle a real attack against the country – a connection voters often make – then Kerry just made the final sale.

  5. Jim in Chicago says:

    A gentleman?

    No, a corpse.

    The guy looked like he was made out of wax.

    He showed no emotion, particularly when talking about his wife.

    Say bah-bye to the lady vote John-John.

    (And his mother had to remind a 50-year-old man about “integrity, intergrity, integrity” on her death-bed — even dear old mom had the measure of this loser!)

  6. Anjin-San says:

    Ken brings up an interesting point. In the first debate, we saw GW the bumbler. In the second, it was furious George. In the third it was shiny, happy, George. Very strange. I have never been a huge Kerry fan, but he grew on me over the couse of the debates.

    Certainly the “far left, flip/flop” Kerry that the Bush campaign has been telling us about is not the guy that showed up. Kerry looked and sounded far more presedential then the President. This can’t be good news for Karl Rove.

  7. Attila Girl says:

    I think you guys are forgetting how much better the President’s closing statement was than Kerry’s.

  8. LJD says:

    Of course the democrats will do well in debates; They are masters of fiction! Their voter base eats it up, eagerly and willingly. The campaign promises ignore the reality that his power to affect major issues will be limited.

    How many voters, quick to point out who won or lost, will actually change their vote based on the outcome? How many undecideds will vote based on the smoke and mirros of the debate, versus their values and the candidates’ standing on real-world issues? Very few. VERY few.

    So the President doesn’t perform as well as Kerry in this venue… There’s a news flash! I would much rather err for the values and determination behind the words, than for the silver tongues of shameless story tellers like Clinton, and Kerry.