Stunned by George W. Bush's lackluster and peevish performance, his media claque had no time to recover to promote an effective line of propaganda on his behalf. On television and the Internet, the president's supporters were unable to conceal their dismay, instantly reinforced by the networks' polling verdicts. By Friday morning, conservative spin had devolved into excuses about his fatigue from comforting Florida hurricane victims -- and the official Republican and Bush Web sites weren't even claiming a victory for their candidate.
The Republican debate negotiators muscled the terms for the first contest, confident that Bush would prevail on foreign policy and thus finish off his opponent weeks before Election Day. Apparently those arrogant handlers had reckoned neither with the inherent weaknesses of the president's position nor the considerable strengths of John Kerry, a smart and seasoned debater. Without question, the Democrat scored a decisive victory on territory that the White House had claimed as its own.
The sounds of euphoria emanating from the Kerry campaign are understandable, after weeks of rumored disarray and discouraging headlines. But before overconfidence replaces dejection, Kerry and his advisors should remember a few important facts.
This first debate didn't conclude the campaign argument over foreign policy, national security, terrorism and Iraq. For many voters, and especially for most undecided voters, that argument may have just begun on Thursday night. While Kerry made a better impression on those voters than Bush did, he may not have yet won their votes.
If an inept Bush struggled to score against Kerry in debate, that doesn't mean the debate revealed no weaknesses that the Republicans will exploit in the days ahead. Potentially the most significant of those is the contradiction between Kerry's denunciation of the war in Iraq as a "distraction" and "diversion" -- the "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" -- and his declaration on Thursday night that American troops aren't dying there "for a mistake."
Instead he must offer a simple and straightforward response: Yes, the president went into Iraq the wrong way at the wrong time. But I will clean up the mess he has left us, and do so with competence and the assistance of our allies. The president misled us into a war he wasn't prepared to finish, but I will lead us out with honor.
He will also have to address himself more directly to the continuing complaint about his vote against the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq. His explanation that he misspoke won't work, and he can't keep turning it around on Bush as he did during the debate. Kerry missed the opportunity to tell Americans something that perhaps none of them know: that the President repeatedly threatened to veto that same $87 billion bill. The reasons behind that veto threat, which included protecting tax cuts for the wealthiest voters and refusing to provide medical care to National Guard and Reserve families, would almost certainly appall most swing voters. But Kerry inexplicably neglects to talk about the presidential veto threat. If the bill was so critical to protecting American troops, Kerry could demand, why did the president threaten a veto?
Finally, and most importantly, Kerry should pay close attention to the impact of his own debating points. His victory was possible not only because of his innate capacities and "hard work" but also because at last he had an opportunity to present his views directly to the American people, including millions who didn't watch the Democratic Convention. Now he needs to study which arguments worked and which need revision.
Thanks to Republican opinion specialist Frank Luntz, the Democrats can examine some fresh evidence about what will cut against Bush during the campaign's closing weeks. A Florida focus group run by Luntz scored the debate heavily in Kerry's favor -- and provided point-by-point data explaining why he won.
"Kerry's power punch came within the first few minutes, as he criticized Bush for not sending U.S. Special Forces into the mountains of Tora Bora in favor of native troops: 'He outsourced that job, too,'" wrote a New York Post reporter, who watched and listened as Luntz's sophisticated machinery measured the responses of 18 undecided voters.
Luntz confirmed the Post's assessment that the debate was "over in the first ten minutes," after Kerry brought up Osama bin Laden's escape from Afghanistan.
Yet since winning the nomination, Kerry hasn't taken sufficient advantage of the president's failure of nerve at Tora Bora. While he was among the first to raise the issue back in 2002, he has rarely emphasized it since then. Indeed, Kerry has hardly tried to force the president or anyone in his government to answer for the decisions that allowed the terrorist chieftain to get away. What the Luntz results show is that reminding voters how bin Laden got away has a remarkable effect -- dispelling Bush rhetoric about the war on terror and Saddam Hussein like vapor.
What else did the little dials turned by the focus groupers tell us? According to Luntz, "Kerry's focus on allegiances, allies and coalitions was very favorably received." That is most encouraging news for the Democrat because his multilateralism is the difference that distinguishes him most sharply from Bush. What the voters may also have picked up in Kerry's remarks about America's traditional allies is a sense of conviction.
Unlike his opaque and sometimes wavering comments about Iraq, Kerry expresses himself with absolute clarity on the importance of restoring American prestige and leadership in the world. The positive response to those statements may reflect less about content than style. This is the same lesson taught by every debate and every campaign. American voters care less about what a presidential candidate is saying than whether they believe he means it.
So the message is plain: Be forceful, be candid and be victorious.