The 2003 Debates
LIKE THE PHOENIX, KERRY SOARS IN POST-DEBATE POLLS
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Oct. 1, 2004 -- Here in the Gulf Coast hinterlands of Florida where Republicans hold virtually every public office in this and the neighboring counties, the crew at a local Post Office was upbeat this afternoon. "He's gong to win. "He better win." "I think he"ll win," said three different postmen as they talked with a customer they knew to be a Kerry. One even presented him with three candid photos of Vice President Al Gore during a year 2000 campaign stop in nearby Sarasota and a book of matchesd from Air Force Two, the Vice-President's plane.
The gods were propitiated by that sacrifice. John Kerry came through for the United States Postal Service and for countless Democrats and yearning Independents tonight, Democrats who had begun to wonder if he had the inner strength and outer composure to deliver hard blows to the Presidnet and take them in return. He did, and then some.
Instant polls from ABC, USA Today, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, and CBS/Gallup and others showed Kerry the winner by anywhere from at least 9 points to a whopping 74 points (in an unscientific Los Angeles Times reader poll). What appeared to me to be a clear but modest win was sufficiently convincing even to the pro-Bush newsmen at Fox News (who did find a malicious quote from an "Australian newspaper" to hit him with) to concede. On MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough called it "John Kerry's best performance yet". That feeling was amplified across the entire political spectrum by the near-unaminity of public opinion.
"I don't think the Australian angle is going to carry the day," cracked one of the talking heads.
The debate audience wasn't allowed to laugh, but the President must have tickled a few of them when he substituted the American slang word for cash - "moolah" - with the Arabic word for Islamic religious leaders, "Mullahs." That got some reaction on the talk shows, too.
Other pundits, in defending the President's role in Iraq, seemed to venture very close to endorsing the idea that it would better to lie to allies about the progress of the war rather than to risk disheartening them with something closer to the truth.
With the second debate between the two just a week away (on Oct. 5), a pro-Bush spokesman in London said on Fox that Kerry's convincing win would drive "Karl Rove to the phones all night" to control a spin that was gyrating chaotically away from the Bush camp. Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards are scheduled to meet Tuesday night at Case Western Reserve iUniversity in Cleveland, Ohio, like Florida a key "battleground" state. The next debate is Friday at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and the final one is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 13, at Arizona State University Tempe, Ariz.
Kerry did it with language that was not all that simple but never that complicated, a deeper, steadier, stronger voice than the President's, and a steady composure that showed only the slightest trace of nervousness early in the match. The President grew visibly nervous early in the debate, and was scowling several times during the debate, but never resembled a Texas cowboy.
Sen. Kerry may have erred in looking at the President while he spoke, as the camera revealed that the left side of his face in profile looks far older than when he looks directly into the camera. The Presdent, however, his face remarkably unlined and his ears sticking out, sometimes looked like Alfred E. Newman, the "What - me worry?" mascot of Mad magazine, especially when his face was twisted into moods of pique and scorn.
President Bush, again stumbling over words and phrases - "just besides us" was a new one - committed a possible Freudian slip when he said that "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein - I mean Bin Laden." The President was impressive for only 30 seconds or so, when he offered what sounded like a prepared sound bite on the hopes and aspirations for freedom of the Iraqi people, and when he recalled meeting the mother of a dead U.S. serviceman.
In contrast, Kerry scored again and again while never hitting below the belt. Bush repeated himself so many times that he began to sound like a Johnny one-note whose repertoire of political rhetoric was rather limited. Ron Reagan, the former President's son, remarked on MSNBC that the President sounded like "he only had a half hour of material," and having once exhausted it, simply repeated himself.
Meanwhile, Kerry's plan for Iraq - according to many of the television polls but not the online ones - touched a satisfying nerve that it had not earlier reached, possibly because most Americans have not encountered him so directly. The Massachussetts senator, who came from far behind to a triumph in the Iowa caucuses and then won all but three primaries afterwards, made much of a summit meeting he proposes between coalition and non-coalition countries, and the President's contention later that it "wouldn't work" sounded desperate and flat.
President Bush managed not to embarass himself too badly, but Kerry quickly cut him with a sharp retort when the President - referring to Saddam Hussein - said, "Our enemy attacked us." Kerry noted that Hussein "didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us." The President then fell into the other Hussein error and corrected himself before moving on.
The downside of the debate for Kerry might have been that he didn't always speak as directly as possible, although the pundits saw a huge improvement. Kerry had apparently worked very carefully on the description of his vote to authorize the war and his later distancing from the way the authorization was employed by the Pesident in going to war. He also developed a better way to address that issue: "I made a mistake about how I talked about the war. The President made a mistake by invading Iraq. Which is worse?"
But Kerry's most telling point was one that is irking more and more Americans, in all likelihood: that our troops are mostly in Iraq, while Osama bin Laden is elsewhere. Someone noted in the post-debate spin session that Kerry had referred to Bin Laden as being in Afghanistan, while many believe he is apparently in Pakistan.
Yet the President had no response to Kerry's charge - one supported by the record - that when U.S. Special Forces had bin Laden and 1,000 al-Qaeda henchmen cornered in Afghanistan's mountainous Tora Bora region early in the war, the President suddenly "outsourced that job,too" - to two Afghani warlords who had supported bin Laden a week or so earlier and also were fighting among themselves.
The charge was reminiscent of the President's comments about Bin Laden in 2003, when he told reporters, "And [Osama Bin Laden is] just – he's a person who has now been marginalized. His network is - his host government has been destroyed. He's the ultimate parasite who found weakness, exploited it, and met his match…So I don't know where he is. Nor - you know, I just don't spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you. I - I truly am not that concerned about him." President Bush's silence on that charge created a vacuum that may have allowed hundreds of thousands of listening independents to rush into Kerry's fold.
Earlier editions of this story, due to the reporter's error, misstated a comment by President Bush's as "I know Saddam Hussein attacked us- I mean Bin Laden." The actual statement by the President was, "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein - I mean Bin Laden." The article was erred in stating that the comment was ommitted from transcripts published by the New York Times and The Washington Post. In each case, The American Reporter regrets the error.