One Person's Opinion
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Friday, October 01, 2004
I don't usually have much of an opinion about which candidate won a presidential debate. I probably should-- I was a successful debater in college-- but I don't. The only exceptions I can think of are that Clinton killed Dole a couple of times in 1996, and Bentsen destroyed Quayle in 1988 in the vice-presidential debate. In 2000, I suppose Bush beat Gore-- he had a good response to Gore on hate crimes and Gore did sigh too much-- but that conclusion is more tentative.
Well this one isn't. Kerry won easily on Thursday night. Two signature moments where Kerry "turned" Bush's attacks to his advantage. (1) When Bush brought up Kerry's awful statement about voting for the $87 billion before voting against it, Kerry replied that yes, he made a mistake in talking about that vote, but Bush made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse? (2) Bush repeated over and over again the obviously focus-grouped phrase "mixed messages", as a shorthand way of describing Kerry's flip-flopping. Kerry turned it around in an unlikely way-- by bringing up the nuclear bunker buster program, something most voters have probably never heard of. Turns out Bush is developing a whole new type of nuclear weapon, with the intention of using it, while telling the rest of the world that they can't have nukes. Talk about a "mixed message".
What does this mean for the campaign? Hell if I know. Debates are notoriously overrated. The Bush-Gore polls were tied before Gore's sighs, tied after Gore's sighs, and essentially tied on election day. Clinton was already killing Dole in 1996. Bentsen's win over Quayle didn't move the polls for Dukakis one bit. Reagan, despite the legend, was beating Carter in 1980 with or without that debate. Kennedy and Nixon were tied in the polls before the supposed 5 o'clock shadow, and tied after that first debate (as well as the other three debates that nobody ever talks about and where Nixon was properly shaven).
That said, one could at least hypothesize why this might be different. After all, the polls were tied until Kerry was attacked by the Swift Boat vets. Bush took a narrow lead and has held it since. To the extent that the Swift Boat attacks swung some voters to Bush based on character doubts about Kerry, perhaps Kerry's strong performance might swing them back. Such voters are not likely to be strong supporters of the Iraq war; otherwise they would have never been for Kerry in the pre-Swift Boat polls.
But let's wait and see. I've seen too many of these campaigns where debates don't matter to think that they suddenly do. I'd still make Bush a slight favorite right now. But if I were a Bush supporter, I'd sure be worried. And since the next two debates are not limited to foreign policy like this one was, it's all downhill from here. (Conservatives will defend Bush to the death on Iraq, but not on the deficit or the prescription drug bill.)
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