Running scared

By Mark Follman
Published October 1, 2004 6:48PM (EDT)

The ever-cautious mainstream media is mostly calling Bush-Kerry Round 1 a draw this morning. Perhaps they don't trust the instapolls or the folks in Ohio. Perhaps they are CBS.

But a number of conservatives are calling it like they saw it -- and it ain't pretty for their man.

Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of the right-wing flagship National Review magazine, wrote up his thoughts immediately following the debate, without talking to anyone else or listening to other commentary. He said that an effective, relaxed Kerry "spoke clearly, and at a nice pace," while Bush, "a little desperate," pulled a Dan Quayle. (Ouch.) Here is part of his take on the president's quagmire in Coral Gables:

"I thought Kerry did very, very well; and I thought Bush did poorly -- much worse than he is capable of doing. Listen: If I were just a normal guy -- not Joe Political Junkie -- I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate, I would. If I were just a normal, fairly conservative, war-supporting guy: I would vote for Kerry.

"Kerry went right to the alliances. He emphasized the importance of such relationships. At least you can't accuse him of succumbing to Republican mockery on the subject, of shucking this core conviction of his. Bush, throughout the evening, as Kerry spoke, had that pursed and annoyed look. I think it must have driven many people crazy. ...

"Bush said, 'We're makin' progress' a hundred times -- that seemed a little desperate. He also said 'mixed messages' a hundred times -- I was wishing that he would mix his message. He said, 'It's hard work,' or, 'It's tough,' a hundred times. In fact, Bush reminded me of Dan Quayle in the 1988 debate, when the Hoosier repeated a couple of talking points over and over, to some chuckles from the audience.

"Staying on message is one thing; robotic repetition -- when there are oceans of material available -- is another I hate to say it, but often Bush gave the appearance of being what his critics charge he is: callow, jejune, unserious. And remember -- talk about repetition! -- I concede this as someone who loves the man.

"Bush was weary -- harmfully weary, I think. He let a million opportunities go by."

(Did we say, ouch?) Read Nordlinger's entire lengthy analysis -- it's honest, and it's brutal.

This morning Nordlinger had some company on the Dan Quayle point: Fox News icon Bill O'Reilly, on his morning radio show, also berated Bush for saying Iraq was "hard work" over and over in the debate. Then there was Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (Republicans are "deflated"), and conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan (a "Carter-Reagan rematch," with the two parties flip-flopped).

And how about those critical women voters? "Bush blew an opportunity," was the assessment of Janice Shaw Crouse, spokesperson for the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee:

"Bush was inexplicably unfocused; he lacked energy and seemed distracted. He didn't seem prepared. He struggled to talk knowledgeably about his record -- his clearly outstanding record. Bush virtually sleepwalked through the debates, only occasionally mustering up the passion to hammer home his points.

"The president allowed John Kerry to set the agenda and ended up on the defensive. He simply needed to be presidential and stand on his record; instead he repeatedly answered his opponent and bowed to Kerry's agenda. 

"The net outcome is that Kerry exceeded expectations; he skillfully, if not honestly, addressed all the accusations against him. Bush did not live up to expectations; he did not even seem presidential. The Bush campaign had hoped to seal the election with the first debate; instead, it is going to be a long road to November 2."

While the mainstream media trips over itself today to be "fair" in its post-debate assessments, at least some conservatives know reality TV when they see it: "The Bush Blowout" has been cancelled.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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