Here’s a round-up of talking heads and bloggers on the third debate:
CNN: CNN’s commentators, who called the first debate for Mr. Kerry and the second a draw, were for the most part disappointed with the third.
“This was the least-satisfying debate, the most drenched in wonkery,” said political reporter Jeff Greenfield, adding that “I really think this was a debate where neither candidate did as much good for themselves as they could have.”
Mr. Greenfield scored the debate a win for Mr. Kerry, saying the contest did nothing to change the perceptions people already had of the president. Mr. Greenfield did say he was impressed with Mr. Kerry’s quip, after saying that both he and the president “married up,” that “some would say maybe me more so than others.”
Political analyst Carlos Watson also liked Mr. Kerry’s joking reference to Theresa Heinz-Kerry’s wealth, calling it the senator’s “best moment.” “Both actually did well,” Mr. Watson said, but he added that “Kerry ultimately found his voice, and when all is said and done I think John Kerry will be declared the winner.”
Candy Crowley, the senior political correspondent, agreed with Mr. Greenfield that “it was a bit of a wonkfest” but said the candidates both handled questions about the role of their religion in their lives well – particularly Mr. Bush. But ultimately, she said she doubted the debate would influence the poll numbers.
CNN said a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken immediately after the debate found that respondents felt Mr. Kerry prevailed over Mr. Bush, 52% to 39%. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points. The respondents were 511 registered voters who watched the debate. Their political affiliations broke down as 36% Republican, 36% Democratic and 28% independent, CNN said.
Fox News: If Mr. Bush had performed this well in the first debate, his lead would be a lot bigger than it is now, said Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard. Mr. Barnes’s take seemed to sum up the response from Fox News’ commentators, though the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol was perhaps the most direct: “I think Bush knocked Kerry out tonight. He just slaughtered him.”
In contrast to his first debate performance, Mr. Bush was smiling through most of the debate, said host Brit Hume, who described the president as comfortable, aggressive and more in command of his facts and figures than he had been in previous debates. “It was the president who was most different in term of his performance and his command of his material,” he said.
One of the harshest criticisms of Mr. Kerry came from Roll Call’s Morton Kondracke, who called Mr. Kerry’s reference to Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter “a low blow” aimed at weakening the Bush-Cheney ticket’s support from the right. “I think it’s dirty politics on the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s part,” he said.
On the other hand, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, located in the debate hall, said Mr. Kerry performed well in the questions about the minimum wage and assault weapons – both issues that Mr. Bush “ducked.” But Mr. Wallace said Mr. Bush seemed confident and happy as he lingered in the crowd after the debate, while Mr. Kerry seemed “wan,” as though he “wanted to get out of there.”
MSNBC: Commentators hesitated to pick a winner, but called the third debate itself a success. “It was an excellent debate,” said 2000 Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, a conservative, while host Chris Matthews added that “it was a great night for America. ? A lot of people had their questions answered.”
One answer was wrong, Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham said: President Bush denied Mr. Kerry’s claim that the president had said he wasn’t worried about Osama bin Laden, but Mr. Meacham said he had seen the video clip showing otherwise and predicted it would be replayed frequently. “George Bush made a mistake,” he said. Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign-affairs correspondent for NBC News, said Mr. Kerry’s apparent stance against a drastic overhaul of Social Security was one he may regret: “John Kerry really pandered on Social Security. … He made the kind of promise that candidates make but presidents have to live with.”
Overall, though, the panelists agreed that both candidates did very well. “Sen. Kerry was very much at the top of his game,” said Mr. Buchanan, adding that “you saw the humanity of the man.” Of Mr. Bush he said that “in a human way, I found him an immensely attractive candidate.”
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough also called the contest a draw, though he said Ivy League debate coaches would favor Mr. Kerry – neglecting to mention that both candidates took the same Yale debate class – but “middle-class, working guys” in the Midwest would identify more with the president. Mr. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, concluded that “the most important thing about tonight is, it gave Republicans a reason to be excited about President Bush, and it gave the Democrats a reason to be excited about John Kerry.” Anyone who is ready to declare a winner, Mr. Scarborough said, is a liar, a partisan, or was watching the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game.
PBS: Both David Brooks and Mark Shields said President Bush performed better than in prior debates – though Mr. Brooks called Mr. Kerry “consistent.” Mr. Shields called the senator “factual, organized, concise” but said he showed only “flashes” of vision and lacked “any flashes of humor until the very end.”
Mr. Shields noted that while the first debate, focused on foreign policy, had been expected to be the better forum for the president, Mr. Kerry shined there. This last debate, on domestic issues, was “probably the president’s best showing of the three.” Mr. Brooks said the president was strongest on education, while his opponent was strongest in pushing for raising the minimum wage. But Mr. Brooks called both men “two candidates with big promises,” saying both “dodged” the issues of how to pay for their plans.
Washington Post: David S. Broder calls the debate “less antagonistic in tone” than the earlier Bush-Kerry match-ups, but he added that “the relative absence of personal barbs served only to highlight the scale of the policy differences between the two men.” Under the headline “Standing Tall in Their Respective Corners,” Mr. Broder says Messrs. Bush and Kerry “sharpened their differences on social and domestic issues ? with each candidate comfortably articulating the positions his most loyal supporters wanted to hear.”
He notes that Mr. Bush “avoided the physical slumps and the scowls that marred his performance in the first debate,” while Mr. Kerry was “as unruffled as he has been throughout his personal confrontations with the president [and] did nothing to damage his prospects.” President Bush “was alert to opportunities to label Kerry as a liberal – or, as he put it once, a politician who dwells on ‘the left bank of the mainstream,’ along with his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,” writes Mr. Broder. “Meanwhile, Kerry rarely passed up a chance to depict Bush as someone with a shaky grasp on reality – whether it was the fragile conditions in Iraq or the pressures working-class families are feeling in this economy,” he says.
“The contrasting political agendas were underlined by the amused but skeptical expressions on the faces of both men when the other one was making his argument,” Mr. Broder writes.
Los Angeles Times: Sen. Kerry and President Bush outlined “sharply divergent” platforms in the debate “and differed just as deeply about their records in office,” writes James Gerstenzang. “Stepping back only slightly from the bitterness of the divisions they demonstrated in their first two debates, ? [both men] offered time after time responses that came down to this: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he says.
“The angry tenor of the campaign was palpable,” Mr. Gerstenzang writes. “Only in the closing statements of their critical confrontation did they strike optimistic, measured tones.”
New York Times: The candidates “ended the last of their three debates as they began them, with starkly defined differences in substance, semantics and style on almost every major question facing the American public,” writes Todd S. Purdum, adding that there is “every indication that their debates mattered – perhaps more than any such encounters in a quarter century.” Summing up the three confrontations, Mr. Purdum says: “Mr. Kerry delivered a consistent set of assertive, collected performances. Mr. Bush appeared in three guises: impatient, even rattled at times during the first debate, angry and aggressive in the second, sunny and optimistic last night.”
In the final debate, Mr. Purdum says, neither side “made anything that would count as a major gaffe, and neither seemed to score a knockout punch. But Mr. Kerry repeatedly chastised Mr. Bush for lost jobs, the growing gulf between rich and poor, inequitable pay for women and lack of health insurance. Mr. Bush ignored the specifics of many of Mr. Kerry’s complaints, instead frequently citing his efforts to improve American educational standards,” he writes.
“Mr. Kerry has a confessed fondness for nuance, but he gave clear and direct answers last night on topics that Mr. Bush dodged, declaring his belief that people are born gay and that he would not appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. On the question of homosexuality, Mr. Bush told the moderator, ‘You know, Bob, I don’t know,’ and on abortion, he twice avoided a direct answer, saying only that he would not have a ‘litmus test’ for judges,” Mr. Purdum says.
Slate: Mickey Kaus at Slate.com called the final presidential debate a “technical draw that helps Bush more than Kerry.” He says Mr. Bush “was personable, upbeat, human and articulate (he seemed to have gained about 20 IQ points since debate #1), while Kerry was near-funereal. He even looked like a mortician. Where’s the Man Tan when you need it?” Mr. Kaus says both men “moved to the center – Bush just did a better job of getting there, talking about education for minorities while Kerry was stuck defending racial set-asides.”
Summing up, Mr. Kaus blogs: “My gut tells me that, contrary to voluminous polling data, many voters are looking for reassurance that it’s OK to re-elect Bush. If so, I think he gave them that reassurance.”
Matthew Yglesias: Blogger Matthew Yglesias says even though each side won some rounds in the debate, Sen. Kerry “won the important rounds, on health care and jobs. Especially on jobs. It’s easy for the professional media to overlook the extent to which jobs overshadow talk about, say, the deficit since, by definition, media professionals are not unemployed. Nor do media professionals live in the areas of the country that are afflicted by job losses. But in Ohio, West Virginia, and elsewhere that stuff’s a huge deal and all Bush said to people who are hurting is that they should go back to school. It’s pretty insulting for a president (especially this president) to suggest that the reason folks are struggling is that they’re too dumb.”
Power Line: “A sensational performance by the president” is the verdict of John H. Hinderaker at Power Line. Mr. Bush “was even stronger than in the second debate, which raises the question of what was going on the first time. The exhausted, halting look that Bush had then is long gone, and Bush’s supporters could hardly have hoped for a better performance than he delivered tonight,” he writes.
Mr. Hinderaker says the debates “defining moment” came when the candidates were asked about religion. “Bush’s answer was perfect: straightforward, inclusive, heartfelt. When Kerry’s turn came, the contrast was astonishing. To call him a deer in the headlights would be an insult to America’s deer population. After 15 seconds, it was clear that he would have been better served to pass,” he writes. “Make no mistake: President Bush mopped up the floor with John Kerry tonight,” Mr. Hinderaker concludes.
Hugh Hewitt: “Bush wins because of the faith question, the gay-marriage question and the emphasis on education and Kerry’s global test,” says blogger Hugh Hewitt. He says Mr. Kerry was “strong on jobs and health care, but weak on connecting with people.” The senator also was “on the defensive on many issues that matter to voters, and especially Catholic voters and voters with children.” Mr. Kerry’s “worst fumble” of the night was “not answering the cost question on health care,” Mr. Hewitt writes.
“Kerry finished the debate sequence as the candidate of global tests, truth tests, France, tax hikes, government health care, uncomfortable with faith, for taxpayer-funded abortion, and very well spoken in saying all those things,” Mr. Hewitt says. “Bush finished the debate joking about his mangled syntax, speaking from the heart about his faith and prayer, praising Laura Bush to the sky, promising to keep working hard for children and the armies of compassion, resolute in the war, thrilled by Afghanistan, optimistic about Iraq, and comfortable with every voter in his potential pool.”
Talking Points Memo: Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo gives the edge to Sen. Kerry. “It wasn’t a trouncing. Bush did okay. But here are several reasons why I think Kerry bested the president,” he blogs. Mr. Marshall says Mr. Kerry:
– “looked more presidential than the president.”
– “seemed collected and forceful through the whole thing. The president, meanwhile, seemed excitable, edgy and sometimes ungrounded.”
– “controlled the tempo of the evening. He kept the president on the defensive. He landed his key points about the budget deficit and the president’s avoidance of the job issue several times.”
Andrew Sullivan: Blogger Andrew Sullivan says Mr. Kerry had “a clear advantage” on substance, Mr. Bush won on manner and style. The president “came in extremely strongly in the last half-hour, emerging finally as the funny, humane figure that many of us came to admire in the last election cycle. Over all, Kerry cemented his new image as calmer and, oddly enough, more presidential than Bush,” he writes.
“But Bush critically regained his likeability, his rapport with people, and his moderate voice ? but he didn’t really advance on his fundamental weak spot: competence and a vision for the next four years. He never gave us a reason to re-elect him, except more of the same. Kerry, while emerging as a less appealing character for the first time, offered plan after plan. The whole debate advanced a narrative: that you don’t have to hate Bush to vote for change,” Mr. Sullivan says.
“The big surprise is that Kerry clearly won the exchanges on fiscal discipline, guns and immigration,” Mr. Sullivan writes, saying that Mr. Kerry seemed tougher on illegal immigrants than Mr. Bush. “This is Bush’s big weakness with his base – and he didn’t help himself. Kerry was able to use the ban on AK-47s to buttress his tough stance on terrorism,” he says.
“On fiscal matters, Bush was destroyed. He simply has no credible answer on deficits or spending. Kerry’s insistence on pay-as-you-go, his reminder of his support for balancing the budget in the 1990s, and his great ‘Tony Soprano’ line was enough to dispense with the president. ? Over all, Kerry seemed defensive and unsure on social issues, but far more commanding on economic ones,” Mr. Sullivan says.
National Review Online: Gary Andres says both candidates “made strong comebacks in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, but with starkly different results.” Mr. Bush “clearly roared back ? scoring his best performance of the three debates. John Kerry ‘came back’ as well ? but the old John Kerry returned, one that had a hard time with crisp, concise answers and one that, at times seemed aloof and sanctimonious,” Mr. Andres says.
Mr. Bush “was more energized than his opponent and hit just about every point he needed to make,” he writes. Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, “must have lost the pages from his briefing book on values and manners. His values were about as wobbly as a ship in a storm in Boston Harbor, and I’m not sure after listening if his theological pedigree is based more on St. Timothy or Timothy Leary. He’s Catholic, an alter boy, in favor of marriage, but he can’t vote to protect it,” Mr. Andres says.
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