For Republicans, the last two weeks have been good. President Bush seemed to have regained the “big mo” and was widening his lead on Democratic rival John Kerry. In swing state after swing state, voters were moving from undecided to Republican. Tonight’s debate, however, provide a road bump in that heady journey, and although President Bush’s performance was not a disaster, it probably put a damper on some of the premature victory party celebrations being planned.
Bush was not as his best in Thursday’s debate. In substance, the candidates were very similar, but in style, Kerry won the night.
The most troubling point for Republicans is that this debate (focused on foreign policy) was supposed to be Bush’s home-run. For weeks, the media consensus was that Bush was going to trounce Kerry, and that Kerry’s best hope was simply to stand his ground and defend well. In retrospect, the rosy picture for Bush did not come to pass.
In actual substance, the merits of each candidate’s statements can be hotly debated. In style, however, Kerry had some clear advantages. Ironically, Kerry did not win the debate, rather it was George Bush who lost it.
In responses marred by repeated pauses, uncomfortable groping for words, and surprising stammers indicating a certain level of unexpected unprepared-ness, Bush revealed a lack of verbal agility that surpassed the basic expectation of a few mispronunciations. More frustratingly for Republicans, Kerry left himself wide open for several Grand Slams that Bush never seemed to pounce on.
In criticizing Bush’s plan to develop nuclear bunker-busters, Bush could have easily retorted with a “It doesn’t surprise me that Senator Kerry is against developing better weapons for our armed forces. He’s been against the development of most of our key military platforms.” On Kerry’s suggestion that the US give Iran the potential opportunity to develop a nuclear power infrastructure, Bush fumbled another made-for-tv homerun by not attacking Kerry for this dangerous and irresponsible proposal (instead just pointing out a minor flaw in what Kerry said).
It was a disheartening performance.
Luckily, in actual substance, the candidates did not stray far from their already-known positions.
It will be interesting to see if, in such a tight race with so few undecided, the debates will change anyone’s minds. Although Kerry appears to be the clear winner of this debate in the style category, it remains to be seen if anyone actually cares. Was anything said that would sway anyone in either direction?