The media reaction: Bush did better, but he needed more

The pundits say Bush didn't change the dynamic -- and Kerry continued to impress.

Published October 9, 2004 5:47AM (EDT)

As they did after Tuesday night's vice presidential debate, most of TV's talking heads dubbed last night's contentious presidential faceoff a draw, with Bush getting credit for rebounding from his dismal performance last week, while Kerry earned points for keeping the president on the defensive, particularly with respect to Iraq. Several commentators suggested Bush helped himself by winning back Republican voters who were turned off by the president's weak performance in the first debate. Points earned for Bush, yes, but that's probably not where the incumbent wanted to be -- forced to reassure the nervous loyalists -- just three weeks away from Election Day.

On the spin front, the Bush campaign finds itself struggling to regain momentum in a campaign dominated by debates, and one altered by Bush's poor performance last week. But as Vice President Al Gore and his staff discovered in October 2000, after he was perceived to have lost the first debate, it's hard to re-create the significance and extraordinary attention voters pay to debate No. 1. (Certainly the television ratings for a rare Friday night debate will be down dramatically from last week's first presidential debate.) As ABC political director Mark Halperin noted, "The news bounce for coverage of a Friday night debate is not going to be the same." And that's why talk of a tie Friday night, or of Bush reassuring anxious Republicans, is coming awfully late in the campaign.

And while Bush improved his debate performance last night (several pundits joked it would have been impossible for him not to), the feeling was that Friday night's debate did not, as the Bush camp hoped, significantly change the dynamics of the campaign, which, based on recent national and state polls, is breaking Kerry's way.

On PBS, Newsweek's Jon Meacham said the debate "helped stop the bleeding" for Bush. Fellow panelist Walter Russell Mead, from the Council on Foreign Relations, added, "The bleeding has stopped, but the damage of the last week and a half probably has not been repaired."

CNN's Judy Woodruff, after sampling the opinion of campaign reporters, announced the pressroom's post-debate consensus was, "This hasn't materially changed the race."

Fox News' Fred Barnes, who seemed to set the bar for Bush very low, said there had been a sigh of relief at the White House because "the president was so much better than the first debate. He actually had some good answers at times. I think it comes out as a tie and that helps Bush." He later noted, "He at least tied. He'll energize Republicans."

"I guess I think if you think the president was doing OK and didn't need a win in this debate, he did fine," added Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "But I think, if one thinks that Bush missed an awful lot of opportunities to go after Kerry in the first debate and he had to make some of them up in this debate, I'm not sure he really succeeded in doing so."

"I don't think President Bush lost a single voter tonight," said Chuck Todd of the Hotline, appearing on MSNBC. "But I don't think the president lured a single persuadable voter."

Bush's most vocal supporter on TV last night was conservative Pat Buchanan. Also appearing on MSNBC, he declared, "It's impossible to say anything other than President Bush defeated John Kerry handily." But almost nobody else -- at least not anybody unaffiliated with the Bush campaign -- came to the same conclusion. In fact, moments later when MSNBC host Chris Matthews tried to suggest his panel had concluded Bush won the debate, NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Ron Reagan both nearly popped out of their seats to protest, saying they were not saying Bush was the victor.

Interestingly, some of Kerry's most glowing reviews came from Fox News analysts, such as Morton Kondracke, who said, "Kerry tried to divert the attack of flip-floppper and tried to make himself out as a moderate and make himself sound tough on foreign policy. He was very effective, I thought. He was on the attack a lot and, frankly, I thought the president was on the defensive a lot." Later he announced, "I think Kerry won this debate as he won the first debate." (Instant polls showed the debate to be essentially a tie.)

Appearing on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show," Fox's Chris Wallace said, "Bush spent too much of his time attacking John Kerry," suggesting that was inappropriate for an incumbent with a four-year record to discuss. "He spent almost all of his time hammering John Kerry. [There was] almost a bit of desperation in his attacks."

In his ability to go in-depth on policy issues, Wallace said, Kerry "seems to have a lot more material to bring to the table than the president does. He was certainly in control of the debate. I thought John Kerry scored an awful lot of points tonight. He has come off in these debates as strong and not as a flip-flopper and not weak."

CBS' Bob Schieffer also liked what he saw in Kerry's style: "He is very comfortable in this kind of a setting. He's a very good debater. He's able to marshal facts, he seems cool. He makes his arguments. The president does not seem as comfortable as a debater."

Historian Richard Norton Smith, appearing on PBS, saw Kerry as a prosecutor. While crediting Bush for "more than holding his own," Smith noted, "John Kerry was [once] a prosecuting attorney and he returned to that role over and over again. I thought he was aggressive, crisp, often in command of his facts."

Asked about Bush's often-intense rhetoric and aggressive mannerisms during the debate, Time magazine's Joe Klein, appearing on CNN, said simply, "He's worried." And if you listen closely to Republicans, so are they.

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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2004 Elections John F. Kerry