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Kerry Wins Debate, Stays Alive, and Can Still Win Election

To get to the bottom line right at the top: Sen. John Kerry more than held his own on President Bush’s turf. Kerry reinvigorated his discouraged supporters and may have swayed some independents. This election race is not over. So, rhetorically and strategically, Kerry won the first debate. [IMGCAP(1)]

Three network instant polls agreed that the Massachusetts Democrat won Thursday night’s debate with President Bush, though two of them indicated that Bush remained out in front in the presidential race and on foreign policy issues.

However, going into the debate, a psychology had developed that Bush had the potential to “put Kerry away” by trouncing him on the issues where Bush held the advantage — the war on terror and Iraq.

There was no put-away on either side. Despite his record, Kerry seemed for 90 minutes a credible commander in chief.

So the race goes on and may get tighter. The next two debates will move on to domestic turf, where Kerry has been running either even with Bush (on the economy) or ahead (on health care). Bush will have to use speeches and ads to recast himself as a better leader in the war on terror. And, undoubtedly, he will.

Substantively, Bush’s biggest mistake in the debate was not to exploit Kerry’s 30-year record of weakness on foreign policy and be specific about Kerry’s inconsistencies on Iraq and the war on terror.

Bush was at his best early in the debate — before he seemed to tire, run out of prepared material and get testy — in asserting that “this nation of ours has a solemn duty to defeat this ideology of hate” and, even if people don’t agree with him, they “know where I stand.”

Bush failed to point out Kerry’s support for the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s, which would have left the Soviet Union with a nuclear monopoly in Europe; his votes for deep cuts in defense budgets and his vote against the 1991 Persian Gulf War; or to fully take advantage of Kerry’s vote against Bush’s $87 billion to finance operations in Iraq.

Bush did bring up Kerry’s famous comment, “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” but Kerry came back with an effective rejoinder: “I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

Bush didn’t return to the $87 billion issue after that. Kerry is deeply vulnerable on the point: It paid for the body armor and the armored Humvees that Kerry said troops were lacking at the outset.

Moreover, on Sept. 14, 2003, in an answer to a specific question on the $87 billion vote on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Kerry said, “I don’t think any United States Senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to — to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running. That’s irresponsible.” On Oct. 17, he cast his vote against the money. Bush never mentioned that quote.

For months, Kerry has seemed trapped by the fact that Democrats are divided on the war on Iraq: Most think the United States never should have waged it and want to withdraw as swiftly as possible, even as a sizable minority believes that victory is necessary.

As late as Wednesday morning in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Kerry seemed confused on the war, unable to say whether it was “worth it” and whether the United States was “better off” with Saddam Hussein out of power.

But in the debate Thursday night Kerry was adamant that “I’ve had one position, one consistent position, that Saddam Hussein was a threat. There was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way. And the president chose the wrong way.” Now, Kerry said, “I’m going to lead those troops to victory.”

Bush tried to counter-argue that United Nations inspections of Iraq would not have worked, but he has yet to master the best case — put forth at the Republican National Convention by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — that France, Germany and Russia likely would have ended sanctions against Iraq, allowing Hussein to reconstitute his weapons programs.

Kerry repeated again and again, “I have a plan” — for Iraq, for homeland security, for defeating terrorism. He alleged that Bush did not. Bush should have said in response, “Here’s my plan and here’s why it’s better than Senator Kerry’s. …” He did lay out a list of activities he’s pursuing, but he let stand Kerry’s charge that he lacks a plan.

Rhetorically, I thought Kerry won the battle for sound-bites — for instance when he said, “This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security. … I believe in protecting America first.”

Also, Kerry won the body-language battle because Bush didn’t seem aware that TV cameras would show reaction shots, which allowed viewers to see him looking annoyed.

I’d expect some weak Bush supporters to move to undecided and some undecideds to move to Kerry. The net effect: Kerry will gain, but Bush still will lead. The fight goes on.

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