It's hard to imagine that if an array of instant poll results spread over three debates and two weeks showed that John Kerry had failed to win a single survey, let alone a single debate, that Wednesday night's media spin would have been as humdrum as it was, when polls once again revealed Kerry had bested President Bush for the third time in as many tries. And Kerry did so with relative ease. According to the CNN/Gallup survey, 52 percent of voters thought Kerry won the third and final debate, compared to 39 percent who gave it to President Bush. CBS's turnaround poll also gave it to Kerry, 39-25. ABC's instant poll was much closer -- 42-41 for Kerry -- but its pool of respondents was weighted more heavily toward Republicans.
For Kerry, it's a rather startling and completely unforeseen achievement, considering Bush entered the final stretch season with an unblemished career debate record and had been given high marks by the press for his debate message discipline and ability to connect with voters. Yet he went O for 3.
Despite the consistent polling results, most of the assembled television pundits Wednesday night considered the debate to be a draw and suggested it would, in the end, have little impact on Election Day. Again, it's hard to imagine that the media response would have been so reserved if it were Bush completing a debate sweep. Either the pundits are right to discount the importance of the debates and that the last two presidential face-offs really were draws, or voters have been sending a clear message over the last two weeks, one that's been falling on deaf ears inside the media Beltway. We'll know the answer to that question in 20 days.
Just moments after the debate MSNBC's Chris Matthews observed of the two candidates, "I think they've debated themselves out." Viewers got the same creeping sense of fatigue from the pundits, who for the most part doled out modest praise for both Kerry and Bush for a debate that didn't seem to catch their interest.
CNN's Candy Crowley complained it "was a bit of a wonk fest," while ABC News' political director Mark Halperin suggested "there wasn't a big decisive moment." CBS anchor Dan Rather said some viewers would say, "You needed a speed yawning course to get through it." Perhaps not surprisingly, ABC's George Will liked the debate's wonkish feeling: "I think tonight it was not about personality and was uncommonly substantive." (Hmm, didn't Will tell the Cape Cod Times he'd be watching the Red Sox game Wednesday night?)
There were a number of Bush fans among the chattering classes Wednesday night. Former presidential aide David Gergen told CNN's Larry King that the president "exceeded his expectations. He was very much in command tonight. He was presidential. He had done his homework. He seemed to be relaxed and in command."
MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said undecided voters "are all going to look at screen and say I relate more to that George Bush guy. The only question is can I afford to vote for him?" How evenly split was the debate? So close that, according to Scarborough, only "an ideologue or a liar" would say one candidate obviously won.
Oops, better not tell William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who, appearing on Fox News, announced "Bush knocked Kerry out tonight. I think it was just, he just slaughtered him." Fox's Chris Wallace, who gave Kerry the edge after Friday night's debate, seemed to agree, saying "John Kerry was very much on the defensive. Most of the time you had the sense John Kerry was having to explain his votes."
NBC's Andrea Mitchell was perhaps the only one to remark how, during split screen, side-by-side shots of both candidates, television directors purposely raised up Bush's image so the shorter candidate would appear to be just as tall as Kerry. Mitchell thought it had a "big impact" and was an "unfair advantage" for Bush.
Over at PBS, historian Richard Norton Smith credited Kerry for, over the course of three debates, "getting the voters comfortable with who he is as a man. That's not something you can do with sound bites." CNN's Jeff Greenfield joined the chorus in criticizing the debate for being excessively wonky, and not resolving the larger issue of who was fit to be president -- although he did say that Bush had failed to "lay the heavy lumber on John Kerry." Greenfield singled out the moment at the end when Kerry joked about how he and Bush (and moderator Bob Schieffer) were all "lucky people who married up," and then added wryly, "some would say maybe me more so than others." "It's the first time Kerry has acknowledged he married a billionaire," Greenfield said, saying that it apparently showed that Kerry felt relaxed.
It was Greenfield's colleague Carlos Watson who came right out and announced, prior to the release of any instant polling data, that "Kerry won; Kerry is now three-for-three."
It seems that should have been the night's obvious talking point.