by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
October 9, 2004
BUSH RIGHTS HIS SHIP, KERRY SAILS ON
BRADENTON, Fla., Oct. 9, 2004 -- President George W. Bush showed himself a vastly improved debater Friday night in the second of three face-to-face meetings, while his opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, not only held the ground he won in their first debate but improved his standing among uncommitted voters in battleground states that could hold the key to victory Nov. 2.
A scientific poll of uncommitted voters taken by ABC News immediately after the debate on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., showed Kerry winning by a 3 percent margin, while unscientific Website surveys at the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC Websites had Sen. Kerry ahead by a vastly greater margin. But for observers at home and in the audience Friday, the President's showing was the hot topic.
President Bush apparently harnessed the scowls and petulance he demonstrated on Sept. 30 and bore himself in a more presidential manner in Friday's "town hall" format. Moderator Charles Gibson of ABC News introduced uncommitted voters from an audience of 140 selected by the Gallup Organization to ask questions they had submitted to the moderator - but not the candidates - in advance.
Each man had two minutes to reply to a direct question, or 90 seconds to respond to the answer, and then 30 seconds for more follow-up if desired. The result was an interesting debate, but one devoid of the sharp visual contrasts offered in the first between the scowling, petulant President and the tall, affable Sen. Kerry.
While the physical and psychological contrasts were muted, the ideological differences between the two men were sharply limned. Sen. Kerry's strongest points were made in the health care arena, where he scored the President for saying in a similar debate four years ago that importing American-made drugs from Canada at lower cost was "a good idea," but then opposed it on behalf of drug companies when it could have been included in the 2004 prescription drug law he signed.
President Bush scored on wit when Sen. Kerry noted that Bush owned a portion of a timber company and earned $84 from it, thus making him at least technically "a small business" that would benefit from his own tax cut. The President - disingenuously, as it turned out - responded that he had not known he was in the lumber business, and quipped "Need any wood?" The timber company income was reported in Bush's required in 2001 income statement.
But the President again reinforced his low-brow image as a communicator by referring to information on "the Internets," and made other grammatical blunders, frequently mismatching singular verbs with plural nouns or vice-versa. He came close to a confrontation with the moderator at one point, who tried to ask the President to respond to a question about Iraq but found himself getting "stepped on" by the President. Gibson finally gave up the effort.
This time, too, Sen. Kerry at least once found himself momentarily almost as much at a loss for words as the President was on Sept. 30 in Miami. Sen. Kerry was trying to name diseases that might be helped by embryonic stem cell research, but after naming two he uncharacteristically fell silent, searching for words that did not come for a long three or four seconds. Since it was a one-time occurrence, however, it probably did less damage than the President's multiple lapses on Sept. 30.
The President scored well on questions surrounding abortion, especially when he replied very directly to Sen. Kerry's response to a question on the topic from an young, wide-eyed, strawberry blonde. "My answer is, we're not going to spend taxpayers' money on abortion," the President replied.
Sen. Kerry's two-minute response to the abortion question seemed like an extended apology for his views, but he did clearly identify himself as a religious Catholic and former altar boy - something voters have said they wanted to hear from him about - and probably reached many younger voters by emphasizing his refusal to stamp his personal religious beliefs on legislation.
President Bush came across as an unabashed, down-to-earth opponent of abortion, which was more appealing than Kerry's response on a rhetorical level but probably not as attractive to a majority of American voters, who generally support Sen. Kerry's position. It may have been an instance, indeed, of a better rhetorical device eclipsing a better-thought political position.
Sen. Kerry scored several times on nuclear proliferation issues, noting that the Bush administration has actually overseen a potential expansion of nuclear-armed nations to include North Korea and Iran while pursuing a new-generation nuclear device of its own, the so-called "bunker buster." The President returned to his defense of the current multinational talks between North Korea and China, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea, charging again that Sen. Kerry's proposal for bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States would fail.
The battle between the two men was uninterrupted by applause, laughter or any audience reaction they would ordinarily receive, although a brief titter spread when the President invited the audience to ask for wood.
Only the President took the opportunity to lay out portions of his Middle East policy. In answer to a question about how he might repair chilly relations with former allies, President Bush said he had refused to deal with Chairman Yasser Arafat of the PLO, and also supported creation of a Palestinian state. But there was no mention of his tattered "road map" to peace, of the security wall Israel is building, the terrorist bombings in Taba, Egypt, or Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Asked by one woman about Iran's threat to Israel, Sen. Kerry, in a two-minute response, reiterated that the President's focus on Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction, had resulted in a muted focus on Iran, which he said was a "big threat," and North Korea. Sen. Kerry said North Korea "has moved from one bomb, maybe, maybe, to four to seven" nuclear weapons, a statistic that has not been widely discussed. Sen. Kerry did not mention Israel by name in his response. Both men have been careful to avoid any form of criticism that might alienate some Jewish voters, but have also appeared reluctant to condemn continuing attacks by Palestinians against Israeli settlers.
Untouched in this debate were issues that have occupied headlines for months, including gay marriage, which both men oppose and touched on in their first meeting, the hurricanes that devastated Florida this year, widespread concern about voting machines, the problem of Internet spam, or the perennial favorite of politicians, crime rates.
An AOL online survey of debate viewers showed that 385,470 respondents favored Sen. Kerry Friday by 54 percent to 46 percent over President Bush, while before the debate, 63 percent of AOL respondents said they expected President Bush to win; only 37 percent expected Sen. Kerry to win. AOL did not provide the number of respondents for the first poll.
An MSNBC survey of Web visitors showed Sen. Kerry ahead by a wide margin over the President, 68 percent to 32 percent. As after the first debate, the Los Angeles Times survey of its Website viewers again gave the nod to Sen. Kerry by a huge margin, with 64.9 percent of respondents saying they were supporters of Sen. Kerry and staying in his camp, while 2.4 percent identified themselves as supporters of President Bush who would stay with him. By 3 a.m. EST, some 1422 Website visitors, or 92 percent, at the Miami Herald Website said Sen. Kerry was more at ease last night than President Bush, while a mere 94 visitors, or six percent, said Bush was more comfortable.
A scientific ABC News poll showed Sen. Kerry with a slight 3 percent margin over President Bush, 44 percent to 41 percent, with 13 percent undecided. That poll had a slight numerical bias towards Democratic voters, the network said. A scientific survey of 515 voters who watched the debate, conducted by CNN/U.S.A Today, showed Sen. Kerry with a statistically insignificant win Friday night by a margin of 47 percent to 45 percent over the President.
The third and final 2004 presidential debate will be held on Wed., Oct. 13, at 9 p.m. EST in the Gammage Auditorium at the University of Arizona in Tempe, Ariz.