- In tone and bearing, he seemed calm, authoritative, and, yes, presidential. I watched the C-SPAN version on a split screen, and in that context, it was particularly striking. In stark contrast to the Bush-Gore debates, it was Bush who was grimacing, furrowing his brow, almost rolling his eyes and at the very beginning, looking snippy and peevish.
- His best line was in asserting very clearly that he has had one position on Iraq all along; that Saddam was a threat and that there was a right way and a wrong way to remove him; and the president chose the wrong way.
AND KERRY'S FAILURE:
- But the missed opportunities were stunning. At one point Kerry even got Bush to agree that terrorists were streaming over the border. And then he failed to ask why Bush hadn't sent enough troops to secure the border! He kept implying that the goal was to bring the troops home, and only at the very end did he assert that we were there to win, not to withdraw. Uh-oh. His assertion that WMD proliferation was the major threat to the U.S. was, on the other hand, very convincing - and by that point of the debate, the president was reduced to echoing him. In fact, Kerry was strongest, it seemed to me, at the very beginning, when his stature rose merely by being there, and at the very end, when he seemed commanding. He had the best closer.
- On the more general point about alliances, Bush did well - espcially on the International Criminal Court, and on the need to base foreign policy fundamentally on the defense of the American people. More Americans will agree with him on this than with Kerry. Still, there were major weaknesses. If you believe, as I do, that the Iraq war is beginning to spiral downward, Bush was not reassuring. He seemed as out of it as ever. When Kerry rightly pointed out the failure of Bush to revamp the CIA or to secure Soviet nuclear material, Bush simply and sadly responded that every morning some guy comes in and briefs him on national security. Now I feel better. And you don't want to be the president who is forced to say, "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us." Moreover, his fundamental critique of Kerry - that by criticizing the war, he had made himself unworthy to be commander-in-chief - was dumb and border-line offensive. It implies that if you've ever criticized the president's war conduct, you cannot succeed him in office. Huh? By that logic, the only credible alternative to Bush is someone who has agreed with him every inch of the way. Memo to Bush: we live in a democracy.
- Kerry has to gain, I think. At the very least, this was a draw on the president's most favorable turf. Afterward, only the Bush supporters seemed concerned that their candidate had lost ground. They should be. Watching Bush last night, I saw a president who sometimes didn't seem in control of his job, a man who couldn't and didn't defend the conduct of the war except to say that it was "hard work," who seemed defensive, tired, and occasionally rattled.
- In some ways, this might turn out to be a version of the 1980 Carter-Reagan match, when Reagan was able to convince people, by his persona and presence, that he was up to the job. Yes, Bush is not as bad as Carter and Kerry is, of course, no Reagan. But the dynamic was somewhat similar. In other words, Kerry gets back in the game, reassures some doubters, buoys his supporters, and edges up a little. Oh, and one young man in the audience had just returned from serving his country in Iraq. Yes, he'd seen the war upfront. He knows what were doing over there first-hand. And he's voting for Kerry. - 2:04:19 AM