. . . Thursday September 30, 2004

The Night the President Blinked

The short answer: This race is back on.

With the way the President and his team have largely dominated the campaign season so far, I fully expected W to perform well during this initial debate.

He did not. Especially during the first half of the debate (when one assumes the ratings were the highest) the President was stumbling and bumbling. He looked less presidential than Kerry. In fact, many times he seemed frustrated, irritated and downright pissed.

The President’s entire debate can best be summed up by a single line he delivered:

“The only consistent thing about my opponent’s position is that he’s been inconsistent. He changes positions. And you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win.”

First of all, this line will not gain Bush or his debate prep team entry into the Lloyd Bentsen Debate Hall of Fame. More importantly, the constant repeating of this refrain quickly drifted from effectiveness to desperation. It was his only ammunition.

Where were the President’s short and certain responses to which we’ve grown accustomed? We could hear his breathing as he pounded the podium, he overmodulated into the mic, squinted, blinked constantly and stumbled over phrases including during one of the moments when he accused Kerry of sending “mixed messages.”

He seemed tired, unsure, irritated and unprepared. Perhaps his isolation in front of friendly crowds with prepared questions on the campaign trail was a poor preparation for this night. But none of Lehrer’s questions were particulary surprising. W even blew the values and character question. He looked like a guy not heading back to the Oval Office, but getting sent up to his room.

Kerry’s performance, given his weak effort so far, was equally surprising. He was just flat-out on. Here are few quick takes (and a list of the best lines offered by Kerry).

- As I advised, Kerry went after Bush for his poor performance on the North Korea question. Kerry even used the same basis for his attack that I suggested – and he referenced the same source, William Perry.

- Bush mentioned Powell a couple of times. Weird. He never mentioned Rummy or Rice or Cheney. Instead he mentioned the name of the one guy who, by all accounts, has been ignored for the last four years.

- Earlier today, I suggested that Kerry use the line: “The American people are smarter than that.” He went with, “The American people know the difference.” Close. (Note to Kerry: Use my line.)

- Someone hurry up and count how many times Kerry said the name bin Laden.

- Bush was good when discussing some aspects of the war on terror (as when he said Osama bin Laden doesn’t decide when we go to war), but even at his best moments, he lost his train of thought and drifted.

- Correct me if I’m wrong here. But I’m getting the idea that: “It’s hard work.”

- Quick request: Can we refer to him as Putin from now on?

- Bush seemed to get rolling when he accused Kerry of having a pre-Sept 10th mentality. I would’ve gone with Sept 11th there.

- The cutaway shots were a killer. No swagger. All smirk.

- Bottom line: Kerry’s skin looked nice (not too orange) and he was sweat free.

And now, some of the best lines from Kerry. These were the lines that defined the debate, framed the discussion and will, I predict, make this race a dead heat over the next few days.

- And I believe President Bush and I both love our country equally. But we just have a different set of convictions about how you make America safe.

- I have a better plan for homeland security. I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence, by going after the financing more authoritatively, by doing what we need to do to rebuild the alliances, by reaching out to the Muslim world, which the president has almost not done, and beginning to isolate the radical Islamic Muslims, not have them isolate the United States of America.

- Unfortunately, he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn’t use American forces, the best trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That’s wrong.

- I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are.

- But we also have to be smart, Jim.

- And it wasn’t until former Secretary of State Jim Baker and General Scowcroft and others pushed publicly and said you’ve got to go to the U.N., that the president finally changed his mind — his campaign has a word for that — and went to the United Nations.

- The president just talked about Iraq as a center of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it.

- Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was.

- This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security. Those aren’t my values. I believe in protecting America first.

Note: I took my own advice (from the post just below this one) and have posted this perspective without listening to a single pundit or looking at a single poll. My personal take (somewhat colored by my wife’s comment that “Kerry kicked his ass”) is that this was a totally unexpected crushing.

Mark my words. At the worst, this is now a dead heat.

Concentration is important!