In the most important test of his presidential aspirations to date, Democratic candidate John Kerry clearly bested the incumbent, President George W. Bush, in Thursday night’s debate on foreign policy, according to pundits and public-opinion polls taken after the two men walked off the stage at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
But the bigger question whether the results will translate into a strong boost in the national polls, where Bush has been leading by around five percentage points for several weeks remains to be answered.
Most public-opinion experts believe the answer is unlikely to be clear until new surveys are conducted early next week. Kerry’s victory, however, is likely to attract more attention to the second and third of the men’s scheduled debates, the only times the two politicians will meet face-to-face before the Nov. 2 election.
Polls were unanimous that Kerry, who repeatedly put Bush on the defensive over the Iraq war, had bested the president. According to a Gallup-CNN-USA Today survey, 53 percent of respondents who said they watched all of the debate believed it was won by the challenger, with only 37 percent insisting Bush had prevailed.
An ABC-TV poll gave the nod to Kerry by a 45-36 percent margin, and a third, by CBS, of self-described undecided voters, found Kerry had won by a 43-28 percent margin, with the remaining 29 percent describing the debate as a standoff.
More telling was the reaction of a number of right-wing pundits who have strongly backed Bush, particularly on foreign policy, which was the exclusive subject of the first debate.
"I think Kerry did pretty well, and we’re going to have a real presidential race," concluded William Kristol, the editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose policy prescriptions have largely been followed by the Bush administration over the past three years.
"If you are a Kerry supporter, you are heartened tonight," sighed Kristol, who was being interviewed as part of a panel of FOX News commentators. Like the Weekly Standard, Fox is owned by right-wing global press magnate Rupert Murdoch.
Another FOX News panelist, Morton Kondracke, agreed, noting, "Kerry looked like a commander-in-chief," which, according to most of the commentary that preceded the debate, was the threshold test the Democrat had to pass in order to remain competitive against Bush.
It was not only Kerry’s height, the effective use of his hand gestures and navy blue jacket that gave him the aura of leadership the Bush camp has tried so hard to question. It was also the contrast to Bush himself, who variously appeared peeved, annoyed, unfocused and fatigued.
"Kerry sounded a lot more presidential," according to Benjamin Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University who specializes in public opinion and foreign policy. "Bush wandered some, and even looked a little ill a couple of times, while Kerry came across as more determined," he told IPS.
Particularly telling was an analysis written the morning after by Jay Nordlinger, the managing editor of the right-wing National Review and an outspoken supporter of the president, who questioned on the basis of Bush’s performance whether he really wants to be reelected.
"If I were just a normal guy not Joe Political Junkie I would vote for Kerry," he wrote, in an article entitled "Don’t Shoot the Messenger … ‘Cause This Assessment’s Grim." "If I were just a normal, fairly conservative, war-supporting guy: I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate."
"I hate to say it," continued Nordlinger, "but often Bush gave the appearance of being what his critics charge he is: callow, jejune, un-serious. And remember … I concede this as someone who loves the man."
On substance, both candidates relied a great deal on repetition of key words and phrases, although Bush did so far more than Kerry. While the president did not accuse his opponent of "flip-flopping" on the Iraq war, which consumed no less than two-thirds of the 90 minutes of the debate, he complained repeatedly that Kerry was sending "mixed messages," primarily by denouncing the war after having voted to give Bush the authority to wage it.
"You cannot lead if you send mixed messages," Bush asserted in a particularly coherent answer to a question from moderator Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) about what concerned him most about Kerry.
"Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signal to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong messages to the Iraqi citizens."
For his part, Kerry insisted his position on Iraq had not changed and that he had voted to authorize going to war on the assumption that Bush would only do so as a "last resort" after exhausting diplomatic remedies, including permitting United Nations inspectors to complete their work.
Because he did not do so, according to the challenger, Bush had made "a colossal error of judgment," both in "diverting attention from the real war on terror against Osama bin Laden" and in leaving strong alliances "in shatters across the globe."
Indeed, if Bush’s mantras were the danger of "mixed messages" and the importance of being "steadfast and resolute and strong," Kerry’s were the necessity for "strong alliances" and the need for a "fresh start [and] a president who can bring allies to our side."
But, so far as the post-election analysis was concerned, style seemed to trump substance probably because of the pre-election speculation about whether Kerry could pass the threshold test of appearing "presidential" and in this sense, the senator came out the clear winner.
Whether all of this will have an actual impact on the election’s outcome remains unknown, of course.
"John Kerry was able to stir the faithful, but his performance wasn’t enough to change the dynamics of the race," according to Fred Barnes, another Weekly Standard writer. "The problem for Kerry … is that right now there aren’t enough committed folks to defeat Bush on Nov. 2. The first debate didn’t change that."
Others did not agree. "If President Bush’s current lead is built not upon confidence in him or his policies, but in a simple belief that Kerry isn’t solid enough to be president, then I think this performance could help Kerry a good deal," noted Joshua Micah Marshall, the author of a prominent political log on the Internet who also writes for The Washington Monthly.
Chris Nelson, a widely respected veteran political observer who publishes The Nelson Report, a widely read newsletter here, had a similar impression that he shared with his subscribers.
"If you are a [Democrat], you probably thought Bush sounded sometimes whiny and defensive, even once or twice flustered; if you are a Republican, you probably heard a strong leader, honestly expressing exasperation at Kerry’s statements and record; if you are or were one of the by now legendary ‘swing voters,’ we suspect you came away giving an edge to Kerry on substance and delivery, as well as his criticism of the president’s record."
(Inter Press Service)