The Big Debates!

FOX Fan Central asked Rich Lowry of the National Review and Ellis Henican of Newsday, who regularly spar on "DaySide with Linda Vester," for a quick post-Presidential Debate analysis.

Rich Lowry:

I think Bush was kind of disappointing last night, but I say that with great hesitation because it is so difficult to judge Bush in debates. When you think of the arguments he could ideally make, he almost always is lacking. He tends to be repetitive and tongue-tied. But, then again, he usually manages to get his point across to voters just fine, and to defy his pundit-doubters.

Two things that I think most people will take away from this debate that will help Bush: 1) when push comes to shove Bush will defend the country and its interests, no matter what international opinion says; 2) Bush wants to be on the offense on the war on terror. These are points that Bush emphasized again and again. Maybe not always artfully, but that doesn't matter so much as the fact that majority sentiment in the country is on his side on both.

To inoculate himself against the too-rosy charge while still emphasizing his steadfastness, maybe Bush should have said right up front in his opening, "We had awful news out of Iraq today. 35 children were killed in bombings. That is truly horrific. Some say I ignore the bad news out
of Iraq. Believe me, I don't. It's just when I hear about these sorts of killings by terrorists desperate to derail us in Iraq, it steels my resolve even more to see this thing through..."

As for Kerry, he lived up to his billing as an excellent debater. He was forceful and articulate, and constantly took the fight to Bush. Substantively, he still had vulnerabilities. Bush scored when he pointed out that Kerry would be attempting to rally the nation and the world around a cause in Iraq that he has called a "diversion" and "the wrong war in the wrong place, at the wrong time." His emphasis on passing a "global test" offers the best opportunity for the Bush team to make some post-debate hay by suggesting Kerry would conduct a global opinion poll before taking military action.

Some Republicans no doubt will be disappointed that Bush didn't put the race away last night, but that was never a realistic expectation. Here is what a Bush campaign aide told me last night: "Anyone who thought we were going to put Kerry away and end the election last night didn't watch the Kerry-Weld debates. That wasn't going to happen. He wasn't going to fall all over himself. Anyone who thought he was going to hasn't followed his career. And if you understand the dynamic of this race, you know nobody is going to put this race away. It was already tightening and is going to continue to tighten. The trend line is toward an even race."

All the more reason to tune in for the rest of the debates.

Ellis Henican:

There’s a reason the post-debate polls are tilting so sharply in John Kerry’s direction, and it isn’t only George W. Bush’s lip-biting, eye-rolling, snarling-snake cutaway shots.

No, those didn’t help the president. He seemed perturbed. He seemed downright resentful that someone would question his war, his leadership, his truthfulness.

But there was another dynamic at play here that helped to catapult John Kerry back into this race. It was the trashing he’d taken since August. He came off so much better than his caricature.

For weeks, the Republicans had succeeded in creating an outsized John Kerry cartoon - a flip-flopping lightweight without a center of gravity, a big human wind chime blowing every which way.

Then the actual John Kerry walked onto the stage at the University of the Miami.

He had bearing. He was calm. He knew the issues in and out. He was direct in his criticisms but not personally mean. He was still a little stiff and stentorian — but nothing like the cartoon Kerry. For a full 90 minutes, he kept his mind focused and his emotions in check. He looked, dare I say, almost presidential.

You can go ahead and file this one under the Ironies of Politics: it was the very success of the attacks against him that helped Kerry win the expectations game.