After the first debate, some people began writing President Bush's (search) political obituary but an energized Bush played to his strengths during the second match-up with John Kerry (search) and may have pulled out at least a tie with his Democratic counterpart.
Both presidential candidates mounted feisty presentations to an audience of about 140 uncommitted voters at Washington University in St. Louis (search) and to countless millions watching or listening throughout the country.
Bush and Kerry came into the night with recent public opinion polls showing essentially a dead heat. Kerry’s numbers have risen since the first debate Sept. 30, a contest nearly all analysts and experts said he won partly because the president stumbled over his answers and the camera caught him smirking while Kerry spoke.
The president “at least tied but the main thing is he was so much better [in the second debate] that that should encourage Republicans,” said Fred Barnes, a FOX News political analyst and co-host of FOX News' "The Beltway Boys."
One “flash poll” taken after the debate – an opinion survey that is not seen as reliable compared with more traditional polling – showed a close contest. ABC News gave Kerry a narrow edge, with 44 percent saying the Massachusetts senator won and 41 percent saying Bush did.
Republicans Claim Victory ...
Bush officials were noticeably relieved when the debate ended.
"The most significant thing he did was recognize that this could be fun and he loves people and this was a debate that the questions came from people, they didn't come from the talking heads … that's what he loves most about this country, is the people," White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told FOX News.
"They saw him answer very candidly -- tough questions but he also talked about what tough decisions you make in the Oval Office," Card added.
When asked by FOX News' "On the Record" host Greta Van Susteren if Bush got "testy" -- since at one point, the president interrupted Gibson to get in a response to Kerry's charges -- Card said: "I know the president very well and he didn't look testy to me ... I saw the president really enjoying himself tonight."
Mark Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election committee, said the president attacked Kerry’s plans more than talking about his own proposals “because John Kerry needs to be held accountable.”
“I think he did exceptionally well in responding,” Racicot said, adding that Bush did a good job pointing out perceived inconsistencies in Kerry’s record. “He’s [Kerry] had so many different [positions] in reference to Iraq, it’s hard to determine on what day he’s going to take what position.”
Vice President Dick Cheney watched the event at a debate-watching party in Palm Harbor, Fla.
"Now, I thought the president did a superb job tonight," Cheney told a group of supporters after the debate. "I especially liked the fact that he, the whole Kerry strategy, going back to their conventions throughout the whole campaign has been based on this notion that they could obscure his record, and not have to talk about it. And tonight, it's very clear that the president held him to account, both on his domestic and his foreign policy record."
... And So Do Democrats
But Democrats said they had nothing to be sorry for in how their guy did as they proclaimed the win for themselves.
“You look at that debate tonight. It was a knock out for John Kerry … [Bush] did not look like the president of the United States,” Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on FOX News' “Hannity & Colmes.”
McAullife said Bush “had trouble putting sentences together” and had a couple of odd misstatements. He once referred to Kerry as “Senator Kennedy” – Ted Kennedy is the senior senator from Massachusetts and ws a presidential candidate 24 years ago – and he called the Internet “the Internets.”
“He got mad at the questioners,” McAuliffe said. “George Bush didn’t have answers. It was a huge win for John Kerry.”
Kerry senior campaign adviser Joe Lockhart sent out an e-mail predictably declaring his boss the winner. "Tonight, George Bush had another chance to make his case to the American people. Again he failed," Lockhart said, saying Bush is "out of touch with reality" on Iraq, has no plan for creating jobs or cutting health-care costs and that he "refused to level with the American people."
Kerry, on the other hand, held Bush accountable, Lockhart wrote, and "made it clear he could lead as commander in chief."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the debate was not one of Bush’s better performances.
“The president spent a lot of time to label John Kerry a liberal but he didn’t come up with any real plans for what he was going to do the next four years,” she told FOX News.
Susan Estrich, a FOX News analyst who ran Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988, said Bush did better during this debate on foreign policy than he did during the last debate. “But on domestic policy, I think Kerry killed him … I think he just creamed George Bush,” she added.