VOTERS TO BUSH: WE'VE SEEN ENOUGH. The third and final presidential debate was the only one in which John Kerry and George W. Bush came across as stylistic and substantive equals. And yet the immediate post-debate polls show that the public believes Kerry beat Bush decisively last night. That might mean that viewers genuinely like what Kerry is saying more than they like Bush's pronouncements. Or it might mean that, nearly four years after they didn't actually elect him president, the voters are sick and tired of Bush. Whatever, it's certainly not good news for Republicans.
Not to rely too heavily on polls (hah!), but Gallup this morning - so recently flogged by liberals for polling samples that seemed to skew Republican - reports that the registered voters it surveyed thought Kerry won last night's debate by a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent. That's nearly as wide a gap as Gallup recorded after the first debate, which was a disaster for Bush.
CBS News's survey of uncommitted voters found that Kerry beat Bush by 39 percent to 25 percent.
ABC News had it 42 percent Kerry, 41 percent Bush; but though I can't find a reference to it on the ABC website this morning, the network reported last night that its sample comprised 38 percent Republicans and 30 percent Democrats, so award Kerry at least another two or three points.
This sounds like a country looking for a new president, does it not? If Kerry can keep running an error-free, forward-looking campaign, then he ought to win this thing. A few days ago even Jay Severin, a right-wing talk-show host on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), predicted Kerry would win if the final polls show him within a few points of Bush, since undecideds tend to break heavily against the incumbent. Offensive though Severin's rhetoric may be, he does know a few things about politics. Add to that the vigorous voter-registration efforts that Democratic-aligned groups have been conducted in swing states, and it looks like Kerry's got more going for him than Bush does at this point.
You may have noticed that I'm staying away from the debate itself. True! Rhetorically, I thought it was a little flat. There really weren't any lines or attacks or assertions that really stood out as transformative or even particularly interesting. I did think that Kerry was reasonably effective in continually pushing the line that the richest one percent of Americans received $89 billion because of Bush's tax cut last year, while (take your pick) Social Security, after-school programs, and health-care needs go unfunded. Bush seemed especially pathetic on the assault-weapons ban. And he came off as petulant and petty after Kerry observed that two network newscasts had concluded that Bush's critique of Kerry's health plan was "fiction" and "untrue." Said Bush: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about - oh, never mind."
As for factual screw-ups, Kerry's pronouncement that Bush had never met with the Congressional Black Caucus turned out not to be true. That strikes me as potentially dangerous, although I'm waiting for further word on a tip I received this morning from Media Log reader W.R. Apparently NPR reported that Bush only met with the CBC after members showed up at the White House uninvited and demanded that he meet with them. So this one could bounce back in Bush's face.
The biggest screw-up of the night, though, goes to Bush. His and Dick Cheney's sloppy rhetoric about Kerry's supposed wimpiness toward terrorism has been a consistent theme of the campaign. In the past few days, and last night, Bush has been ripping Kerry for suggesting that terrorism ought to be approached like organized crime and brought down to a manageable level - never mind that that sounds rather like Bush's remarks to Matt Lauer a few months ago, in which he said it may not be possible actually to "win" the war against terrorism.
Well, last night Kerry criticized Bush for once having minimized the threat posed by Osama bin Laden - and Bush, falsely, denied it. I'll let Slate's Chris Suellentrop pick up the play-by-play:
Just as it took Al Gore three debates to settle on the right tone during the 2000 campaign, President Bush figured out in his third face-off with John Kerry how to be neither too hot nor too cold. But Kerry was as good as he can be, too, and more important, what good the president did with his performance will be overshadowed Thursday when the TV networks spend the entire day running video clips of him saying of Osama Bin Laden on March 13, 2002, "I truly am not that concerned about him."
By denying that he had ever minimized the threat posed by Bin Laden, Bush handed Kerry, during the very first question, the victory in the post-debate spin. The Kerry campaign's critique of the president is that he has doesn't tell the truth, that he won't admit mistakes, and that he refuses to acknowledge reality. Bush's answer played into all three claims.
This morning, at least, I'd rather be Bob Shrum than Karl Rove.