In the first of their three debates, John F. Kerry appears to have scored a victory over President Bush. I haven’t found any source outside of the Bush campaign that believes the President won. Every journalist, pundit or commentator — of whatever party — declares it a Kerry victory or a tie.
Assuming, charitably, that it was a tie, you have to assume that the debate helped Kerry. In any election involving an incumbent, the challenger’s first task is to persuade the voters that he’s a plausible commander-in-chief. No matter how vulnerable the incumbent may be (and Bush is as vulnerable as any), no challenger can be elected until he passes that threshold. Merely by standing toe-to-toe with Bush and not wilting, John Kerry, perhaps for the first time, seemed Presidential.
I’m obviously not much of a pundit, because I initially thought Bush had won. Although Kerry was articulate and poised, he seemed stiff and humorless. Bush imbued his answers with the folksy, unsubtle, no-nonsense Southern twang that voters four years ago found appealing. There wasn’t much levity in the debate, but such as it was, it came from the incumbent. On a gut level, I thought that Bush did a better job of making an emotional connection with his audience.
But Bush stammered through several of his answers, and he was clearly on the defensive. I was disappointed that moderator Jim Lehrer spent so much of the debate (at least 2/3rds of it) re-hashing the rationale for invading Iraq. While the candidates clearly disagree on whether the war was a mistake, after an hour they were just repeating themselves.
Kerry supporters shouldn’t get too giddy. Post-debate insta-polls initially showed Al Gore winning the first debate in 2000. By the time the punditocracy was finished dissecting Gore’s performance, he had lost. It will take a few days to see whether Kerry’s solid performance last night actually made a difference to persuadable voters. What’s more, there are two Presidental debates to go, plus a Cheney-Edwards tilt next Tuesday. Any one of them could produce one of those defining moments that changes an election.