For the second time in four years, the Democratic candidate was the clear winner in the campaign's first presidential debate, according to instant polling and immediate reaction from pundits. The difference this time compared with 2000 is that Sen. John Kerry is likely to continue to be seen as the winner in the days ahead.
The pundits appearing on TV news broadcasts after the debate Thursday night and Friday morning were nearly universal in their praise for Kerry's performance ("The toughest we've ever seen John Kerry," said NBC's Andrea Mitchell), and the sometimes-timid chattering class showed little hesitancy in labeling Bush's performance a failure. ("Strangely on the defensive and uneasy," noted Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker.) But as former Vice President Gore discovered in 2000, it's what the press and the voters say three or four days after the debate that really matters. Thanks to aggressive post-debate spin by Republicans in 2000 about Gore's audible sighs and so-called exaggerations -- spin that was lapped up by the mainstream press -- Gore's debate win quickly morphed into a political loss.
Republicans will work hard in coming days to pull off the same trick again. "They're are going to have to clean up [over the weekend] because Bush himself didn't do it," Newsweek's Howard Fineman said on radio show "Imus in the Morning." But they face a harder task than in 2000 -- because Kerry did not make any obvious verbal mistakes that played into the Republican attack narrative (such as "flip-flop"), the way Gore supposedly did with his exaggerations. And as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter said on PBS Thursday night, "the visuals did not help Bush," referring to the much-talked-about look of annoyance Bush wore on his face while Kerry answered questions, as well as Bush's rapid-fire blinking. This time it's Republicans who are on the defensive about how their candidate "acted" during the first debate. Indeed, on one Friday morning talk show, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett belittled those who tried to "overanalyze facial expressions." Yet four years ago, Republicans were urging the press to do just that: overanalyze Gore's sighs.
An instant poll from ABC indicated that undecided viewers who watched the debate thought Kerry had won by a 44-36 margin, while Gallup showed Kerry winning by a margin of 53 to 37. During real-time monitoring of a debate focus group, CBS found Kerry scoring consistently better than Bush, particularly among women voters. And 52 percent said their opinion of Kerry had changed for the better.
No doubt emboldened by those results, which seemed to confirm the talking heads' gut reaction that Bush had floundered, TV pundits who in recent weeks have been highly critical of the Kerry campaign last night were swift in their declarations of victory:
The president did have his share of fierce defenders among the pundit class. Addressing the issue of Bush's annoyed looks, Fox contributor Monica Crowley said, "I think that what you saw with President Bush, the annoyance, was so many times during this debate John Kerry was misrepresenting his record, lying about his record, stating it incorrectly." Fox News host Sean Hannity said of Bush, "I've never seen him more passionate, more on message, more articulate."
Friday morning, as Kerry's quip about Bush's wrongheaded approach in Iraq -- "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and wrong" -- was looped again and again on TV, National Review Editor Rich Lowry praised Bush's debate performance on Fox. But he also conceded that Bush "was very repetitious, at times he seemed at a loss for words, and there were a lot of opportunities missed to score points against Kerry."
And as conservative Pat Buchanan noted Friday morning on "Imus," even Bush's handlers (he mentioned Ralph Reed and Karen Hughes) didn't seem to have their heart in the post-debate spin efforts. That echoed an exchange Thursday night on MSNBC when Mitchell stressed how important Kerry's performance was because in the days leading up to the debate even some of his aides were "less than enthusiastic" about their candidate.
Added host Chris Matthews: "[Back then] they looked like Ralph Reed looked tonight."