Friday, October 1 - SUDDEN INSIGHT

Some rather plain talk from Houston. Good stuff. - SUDDEN INSIGHT


A serious debate, on more than equal footing
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Let's be honest. We won't have a clear idea of any effect of tonight's debate on the presidential campaign until well into the weekend or beyond.

Media coverage -- and campaign spin -- can settle in to reflect an outcome that's sometime at odds with the initial response.

In short, first impressions are often wrong.

Smart writer. This worries me. No matter how well Kerry performed tonight the press has not yet reared its ugly head. They turned the sweet keep a stiff upper lip Howard Dean speech during the primary into the angry Howard scream speech. As the major tele-media often take their story lines from those incubated in the dungeons of conservative talk-radio, I remain skeptical about how the debate will be defined over the next few days. Honestly, I expect the press to screw it all up.

But with that in mind, here's my first draft of history.

President Bush insisted that the first debate be about national security.

He thought he could command -- even dominate -- the issue.

He was wrong.

Over 90 minutes in their nationally televised encounter, Sen. John Kerry easily held his own on questions of the war in Iraq, terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and other international questions.

Most surprisingly, Bush spent much of the evening it seemed on Kerry's turf, defending his Republican administration's stewardship in that crucial field.

Kerry was seeking to give voters who do not want to re-elect Bush enough confidence to support his Democratic candidacy. If Kerry's performance didn't accomplish his aim, it may be an impossible task.

Confidence in a candidate is an especially important question in terms of foreign policy, because it includes the role as military commander-in-chief.

There had been speculation whether Bush would use the debate to discuss any errors in Iraq, either in the invasion or its administration.

He did not. He even seemed to back away from his earlier concession that there had been "miscalculations."

He remains, he insisted "realistic" and "optimistic."

Kerry said he had made a mistake in how he talked about his vote against $87 billion for the Iraq conflict, but "the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Bush's main thrust, repeated several times, was that Kerry, having declared Iraq "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," could not be trusted as commander-in-chief.

Bush's main message, however, may have been the sometimes sour expression which cameras caught several times as Kerry spoke.

Bush's well-known favoring of hammering home a few main thoughts may have looked more like having a limited range of message.

Even with both candidates' frequent recourse to tested campaign-speech formulation, it was a serious discussion of serious issues.

Personality, as opposed to policy, had little to do with the evening. But Kerry's presentation was generally strong, while Bush had more moments of hesitation.

Both candidates scheduled rally appearances immediately after the debate, giving themselves an opportunity to clean up any rough edges (or worse) from the debate.

They know that the television's drive for something fresh give them a chance of getting their personal post-debate spin on the air quickly, especially for Friday morning's news shows.


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