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October 1, 2004
Washington Papers Agree: Debate A Draw

It's not too often that one finds editorial agreement between the two DC papers, the Post and the Times, but both papers called last night's debate a draw. The Post gives its analysis in its unsigned editorial:

The center of the debate was Iraq, though the candidates differed more on past actions than on future plans. Mr. Bush stoutly defended his decision to go to war and its results; Mr. Kerry forcefully criticized that decision and the war's management and offered himself as a more competent commander in chief. But Mr. Kerry had a more complicated position to defend, and it showed at times. He called the war a mistake and a diversion, but later said that American soldiers were not dying for a mistake. He implied that money being spent in Iraq could be better spent on prescription drugs for seniors, but insisted, "I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning." ...

In the end the candidates drew sharply distinct portraits of themselves and each other. Mr. Bush stressed his own resoluteness, which Mr. Kerry suggested included a dangerous tendency to be divorced from reality. Mr. Kerry stressed his commitment to alliances and patient leadership, which Mr. Bush suggested could mean weakness. Both performed credibly enough to keep voters tuned in for the next debate.

The Times uses an analysis by James G. Lakely to reach much the same conclusion, but in greater depth:

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry essentially stuck to their scripts, landed few significant blows and fought to a draw in last night's opening presidential debate, political strategists from both parties said.

The strategists said the outcome probably will give a minor boost to Mr. Kerry who has been flagging in recent polls, but also will buffet Mr. Bush's reputation for steadfastness that has been credited with swaying undecided voters to his camp.

"I think both have done well," said Republican political consultant Frank Donatelli. "Both were well-prepared and had good command of the facts. Most people's views probably won't be changed by this debate. Partisans will find plenty of reasons for reinforcement for their present biases."

Democratic political consultant Scott Segal said that Mr. Kerry lived up to his reputation as "a very good debater" and that Mr. Bush held his own.

I think there were enough highlights for each candidate to make a couple of political commercials, although I'm hearing that the Democrats are making one with nothing but George Bush's facial expressions ... as if they haven't tried belittling Bush enough in this electoral cycle. Republicans will certainly make one from the "global test" remark that John Kerry must wish he'd skipped:

A Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president "turned in a pretty solid performance."

"I think that loyal Democrats were hoping the president's head would fall off during the debate," he said.

Mr. Bush came across as "calm, folksy and grounded," but that each man got "a little testy" once they started to hurl some of their campaign stump-speech accusations at each other, Republican political consultant Bob Moran said.

"Bush missed some opportunities, but that misses the point," Mr. Moran said. "Kerry made the biggest stumble tonight by citing a 'global test' for pre-emptive military action to protect America."

Hugh Hewitt called that point the "game, set, match" of the debate. The answer came near the end in response to Jim Lehrer's question about pre-emption, and this is what Kerry said:

KERRY: The president always has the right, and always has had the right, for preemptive strike. That was a great doctrine throughout the Cold War. And it was always one of the things we argued about with respect to arms control.

No president, though all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.

But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why youre doing what youre doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons. ...

BUSH: Let meIm not exactly sure what you mean, passes the global test, you take preemptive action if you pass a global test.

My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.

While I think this was one of Bush's better points, I think he was far more effective in deriding Kerry's insistence that he could build better alliances while denigrating the allies we already have as "coerced and bribed" and could get greater international cooperation in Iraq while calling it "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time." Kerry answered neither of those challenges, nor could he, and I would suggest that Bush keep playing on that, post-debate.

I still believe this debate was an effective draw, and that Kerry might at best pick up two points. That's not good enough for a candidate who has a six- to eight-point gap. It could help him hang on in Minnesota -- maybe -- but he hardly won Wisconsin back. He needed Bush's head to fall off, as the Democratic consultant said, and it didn't happen.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 1, 2004 5:57 AM

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