WASHINGTON – Many undecided voters liked what they saw from John Kerry (search) and were more than a little concerned about President Bush's performance in the first presidential debate — but they still had questions about what Kerry would do in Iraq.
Michael O'Fallon, a 41-year-old Republican from Prior Lake, Minn., tuned in hoping Bush would perform well. He voted for Bush in 2000 and still is inclined to support the president. But he was disappointed.
"I think Kerry was more prepared than Bush was, unfortunately," he said Friday. "The president looked kind of preoccupied. He was stumbling for words. I think Kerry really gave it to him.
"I don't like the Democratic side and I want Bush to stay in," O'Fallon said. "But he's going to have to get his story a little neater and straighter."
O'Fallon, like one in every five voters, is persuadable — the voter group that will decide this presidential election. That group includes about 5 percent who tell pollsters they don't know who will get their vote and about 15 percent who say they are leaning toward one candidate but could switch to another.
Businesswoman Marilyn Morrison of San Marcos, Calif., leans toward Bush, but after the 57-year-old Republican watched the debate, she turned to her Democratic husband and said, "If Kerry won, I could live with it."
Morrison, who voted for Bush in 2000, says she never would have said that before watching the presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy.
Persuadable voters tended to credit Kerry with doing a better job in the debate. CBS News interviewed a nationally representative sample of 200 persuadable — or uncommitted — voters on Thursday night. Those voters said Kerry did a better job in the debate by 43 percent to 28 percent, with the remainder saying it was a tie.
More than half, 53 percent, said they had a more favorable view of Kerry after the debate, while 22 percent said their view of Bush improved. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.
After watching the debate, several persuadable voters mentioned the president's grimacing expressions caught on TV as he listened to Kerry criticizing his policies.
"I really felt sorry for Bush, he became obviously agitated and uneasy in his reactions to Kerry," said 79-year-old Republican Alta Brandon of Kingwood, Texas, a suburb of Houston. "He didn't show self control."
Along with the praise for Kerry's performance came some complaints that his explanations abut his Iraq plans were too vague.
"My biggest impression is that John Kerry never answered the questions," said Dan Roberts, a 45-year-old Democrat from Vancouver, Wash. "He went off on why Bush was wrong, but he never said what he would do to change things."
For Roberts, Kerry's failure to give more details on Iraq "probably cemented my decision" to vote for Bush.
Craig Morrison, who is in business with his wife Marilyn, said Kerry still has trouble explaining his positions on the issues in everyday terms.
"He's still going to get hammered," said Morrison, a 54-year-old Democrat considering a vote for independent Ralph Nader. "I don't think he explains himself that well. He missed an opportunity to explain his votes for and against the money for Iraq."
For Barbara Walenga, a Republican-leaning independent from Franklin, Ind., the debate offered a chance to focus on a race that has her "wavering back and forth."
"I thought Kerry presented himself very well last night," said Walenga, who voted for Bush in 2000. "Kerry was very presidential in his demeanor, I thought he was a class act.
"And I had already reached that conclusion before the people on TV told us what to think."