Debate #1: Tactically, a draw; strategically, Bush wins
[UPDATE: It's fixed. You see, I had a plan to do fix it smarter, more effectively, and more sensitively. But I can't tell you what it was, and besides, you don't need to know about it until after I'm President of the United States...]
Now to lesser issues, like tonight's debate. My gut feeling going in was that Kerry would help himself by being the more eloquent speaker and debater, but that unless Bush made a major gaffe, he wouldn't get the boost he needed to get back into the race.
That gut feeling was pretty much borne out. Kerry scored well in a technical debating sense, but of course, that's not what presidential debates are about. He was articulate but still came across as a haughty know-it-all, with his repeated boasts that "I will do it better and smarter," etc. He was also unable to refrain from shiftiness and vagueness ("I have a plan..."), as well as inserting several Vietnam references. And he flip-flopped again within the space of a few minutes, calling OIF a "mistake" in one answer and then "not a mistake" in the next, as well as qualifying his "I'll withdraw within six months" line. Just reinforced my impression that these things are ingrained in his psyche beyond the reach of any coaching to root out of him.
Obviously was trying to reinforce his base with tiresome shots at "tax cuts for the wealthy," "guarding the oil ministry" during the post-war looting in Baghdad, Halliburton, etc. He even disinterred "Yellowcake-gate." That'll guarantee that his listless followers will be reinvigorated, at least in the near term.
Didn't help himself by arguing that there were "35 or 40" bigger threats than Saddam and then arguing that the best policy for dealing with Iran and North Korea is more Clinton-style appeasement. But this - "But if and when you do [go to war], Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the global test..." - was a full-blown gaffe. There you go - the "permission slip from the UN to defend America." Won't knock him down much in the polls only because he isn't very far from bottoming out as it is. But, to the degree that it was possible for him to lift himself up by this encounter, that pretty much finished it.
Bush, as the incumbent and frontrunner, didn't have to score a knockout. He just needed to hold his own. And he did, though not much more than that. He focused on emphasizing his broad governing principles (centered around staying on the offensive against the Islamists - which at least deflected Kerry's homeland security arguments, if not refuted them) as opposed to getting drawn into a wonking contest, which was wise. Didn't touch on Kerry's weak Senate record, probably, I'm guessing, because the Bushies thought that would be seen as obsessing on the past rather than concentrating on the present and future. Did repeatedly hammer away at Kerry's irresolution, inconsistency, and "mixed messages." I liked how he pointed out that we can fight more than one enemy (bin Laden, Saddam) at a time. Showed some righteously indignant (Zellian...?) fire in landing on Kerry's denigration of our allies in Iraq, including Prime Minister Allawi, with both feet. Ditto the "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" line. Smacked the "out of touch" slam with anecdote about consoling loved ones of soldiers killed in action, and turned the tables by linking it to Kerry's anti-war agitating. And he absolutely pounced on Kerry's "global test" belly-flop: "What's he mean, passes a global test? You take preemptive action in order to protect the American people."
The President didn't come across as "commanding" as Kerry did, but again, his greater stature as the sitting Chief Executive compensates for that. And his job tonight wasn't to get himself over, but simply to keep himself there. By making his case capably, if not melifluously, and avoiding any significant missteps, I would say, yes, "Mission accomplished."
I agree with Jim Geraghty's assessment, and that of one of his readers:
"No bounce for either side out of this. This evening's comments just reinforced the messages that came out of each party's convention....in the coming polls, Bush retains his lead, outside the margin of error, in the mid-to-high single digits.
"UPDATE: Kerry Spot reader Keith offers this observation that I agree with: As much as some of us political geeks may have enjoyed tonight, because there was nothing shocking or surprising, there's no way that much of the public is going to watch two more 90-minute sessions of this. They'll catch a few minutes, but so far the debate has just confirmed what they already knew."
And what they already knew, and had reinforced tonight, is what has George W. Bush on the brink of a second term.
MY UPDATE: Looks like my (and Geraghty's) instincts that last night's debate wouldn't have much impact either way on the race was (Kerry)spot-on, according to Gallup's findings:
***Demonstrated he is tough enough for the job: Bush 54%, Kerry 37%
***Likable: Bush 48%, Kerry 41%
***Believable: Bush 48%, Kerry 45%
***Agreed with you more on the issues you care about: Bush 49%, Kerry 46%
***Had a good understanding of the issues: Bush 41%, Kerry 41%
***On Iraq: (pre-debate) Bush 54%, Kerry 40%; (post-debate): Bush 54%, Kerry 43%
***Handling the responsibilities of Commander-in-Chief: (pre-debate) Bush 55%, Kerry 42%; (post-debate) Bush 54%, Kerry 44%
The one area where Kerry was the clear winner was...
***Expressed himself more clearly: Kerry 60%, Bush 32%
Conclusion? Kerry is the better debater, Bush is the better President.
Two other thoughts about the remaining debates:
1) Bush may have felt the pressure of being the favorite last night because the subject matter was his strongest suit. Since Kerry is presumed to be stronger on domestic issues, and Big Media is whirling into its "Kerry comeback" spin, the President will return to his accustomed role of debate underdog, where he always most excels.
2) One of the remaining two debates is in "townhall meeting" format, and that is Dubya's best setting, and the stiff, aloof Kerry's worst.
So "bring...it...on," Senator. Your time, and chances, are slip-slidin' away.