The pundits on Kerry: He nailed it

The same mainstream talking heads who trashed Gore give Kerry strong notices, and even right-wingers hold their tongues.

Published July 30, 2004 5:30AM (EDT)

If Sen. John Kerry's acceptance speech were the opening night of a Broadway production, it would be doing robust box office business Friday morning. The same talking heads who seemed openly skeptical of the Democratic presidential nominee for much of this week gave his speech strongly positive notices.

On a scale of 1 to 10, ABC's George Stephanopoulos gave Kerry's speech an 8 "as written," and a "7.5 as delivered."

"Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer said Kerry had "done about as well as he could do to set the stage for what's ahead."

NBC's Tim Russert credited Kerry for opening himself up during the address. "He gave more of himself than I've ever seen before." He added that Democratic delegates "have seen a candidate who's willing to take the battle to George Bush. Democrats heard what they needed to hear; it's on, full charge ahead."

Time magazine's Joe Klein told CNN Kerry "nailed it" and that he'd "never seen the man speak so well."

Meanwhile, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, appearing on MSNBC, said Kerry "has established the point he's a fighter, a war hero and a real guy. Now it's up to Bush to tear him down."

Some observers might suggest all those pundits have Democratic leanings to begin with, so their praise doesn't mean much. But they were precisely the type of commentators who routinely ridiculed Al Gore's campaign throughout the 2000 race, so the shift is worth noting.

The post-speech analysis got off to a comical start on CNN, when the news channel inadvertently broadcast frantic comments from a Democratic producer in a rage that more balloons were not dropping from the ceiling of the Fleet Center: ""More balloons! We need all of them coming down! All balloons! Balloons? What's happening, balloons? There's not enough coming down. All balloons! Where the hell -- there's nothing falling! What the fuck are you guys doing up there?"

No word yet if any FCC action will be taken against CNN.

Over at MSNBC, Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of 24 voters and found four who voted for Bush in 2000 and, after seeing Kerry, said they would vote for the Democrat in the fall. Luntz suggested Kerry would not see as big a post-convention bounce as Gore did in 2000, and thanks to the convention's relentless focus on military toughness, insisted that "national security is now a positive for this Democratic candidate." (Over on CNN, Washington Post reporter Terry Neal mentioned that a Zogby poll taken right before Kerry's speech indicated Kerry had already picked up a five-point bounce from the week's activities.)

Conservative pundits were notably restrained in critiquing Kerry's address. MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough critiqued Kerry's style, saying his speech had the "best text" of the week, but not the best presentation. Scarborough suggested Kerry stepped on too many of his applause lines: "If John Kerry had delivered that 'Mission Accomplished' line and stepped away from the microphone the crowd would still be cheering. He blew through the best applause lines in a way Bill Clinton never would have."

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes weakly told Fox News viewers that Kerry's "salute wasn't very good." The magazine's editor, Bill Kristol, conceded that Kerry "gave a good speech," adding that it was a "bold and interesting" move to try to "retake patriotism for Democrats."

Some of the right's hesitation to trash Kerry's speech may have stemmed from the fact that immediately following Gore's 2000 convention speech, many conservatives denounced it as a failure. Robert Novak labeled the speech "a flop" and erroneously predicted Gore would come out of the convention facing a six-point deficit in the polls. And the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan wrote, "Al Gore's acceptance speech was a rhetorical failure and, in my view, a strategic blunder of significant proportions."

The conservative pundits ended up with egg on their faces, as the public deemed it a hit and Gore enjoyed a robust and sustained post-convention bounce in the polls.

Kerry's right-wing critics may be holding their tongues, not wanting to pan what could turn out to be another Democratic hit.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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