Instant Polls, Analysts Find Kerry Won First Debate
President Bush and Sen. Kerry debated foreign policy last night in their first presidential debate. The encounter focused mainly on Iraq, with Kerry saying Bush had made "a colossal error in judgment" in going to war there and the President accusing the Massachusetts senator of changing his stance on the war based on the political winds blowing at any particular moment. Instant polls taken after the debate show Kerry was seen as the clear winner, although it would appear from the same surveys that few minds were changed by the candidates' performance.
Immediately after the debate, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of 615 registered voters who had been interviewed in a previous poll found 53% think Kerry "did the better job in the debate"; 37% said Bush did; 1% said neither; 8% said both; 1% had no opinion. However, as USA Today reports, the same poll indicated "43% of Americans felt Kerry would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq, compared to 54% for Bush. Before the debate, those numbers were 40%-54%." ABC News Radio this morning reports on the network's own instant "poll of 531 people," according to which "45% nationwide thought John Kerry won. 36% thought President Bush won. That hasn't changed the voting outlook much. After the debate, the ABC News poll shows 51% still prefer the President, 47% prefer John Kerry." Before last night's debate, Bush was ahead 50%-46%. CBS, for its "insta-poll," asked "200 respondents right after the debate was over to tell us who they thought won. There was a very strong conclusion from this debate. . . . 44% said they thought John Kerry won this debate. 26% said George Bush did. A tie, 30%."
In addition, media observers largely gave Kerry the edge for his performance. On NBC, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert said, "Democrats have been quite concerned about John Kerry. Tonight he seemed to find his voice for the Democratic view of the world." On ABC, the network's political director, Mark Halperin, said Kerry "clearly performed at a level that was more than competent. It was perfectly good. I think he was able to nudge the debate." CNN political analyst Carols Watson, meanwhile, said, "I think the Kerry people are going to come out of this very happy, feeling like he met expectations, even exceeded them." Knight Ridder thought Kerry "stayed on the offensive throughout the showdown," and the Philadelphia Inquirer said the senator "at least in the short run. . .may have performed some necessary image repair, perhaps increasing his comfort level with wayward Democrats who have been frustrated by his campaign, and demonstrating to independent swing voters that he is more than a mere weather vane."
Some of those same observers were critical of the President's performance, particularly his demeanor throughout the debate. ABC's Mark Halperin believed Bush "was remarkably angry-seeming, a lot of the time. When you saw those cutaways of the President, listening to Senator Kerry, I thought he was unusually angry." John King of CNN said "you could tell a few times from the expressions on the President's face that he was just flat-out annoyed." The Washington Post, in an analysis piece, said "Bush often appeared agitated, scowling at times," and USA Today, which also commented on the President's facial expression, thought Kerry "kept Bush on the defensive." This was a point emphasized by Kerry campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart in "spin alley" after the debate. In an interview with Fox News' Carl Cameron, Lockhart said Bush "seemed to have an uncomfortable, annoyed look on his face through much of the debate. I think if 2000 was about the sigh, 2004 is going to be about the smirk."
Similarly, the AP reports Bush was under a "constant drumbeat" from Kerry, and "did little to disguise his irritation pinching his lips in a tight scowl or biting on the insides of his cheek." Gannett News Service, meanwhile, concluded that Bush "did not score the decisive blow his supporters were looking for, but he also did not make the mistake that Kerry supporters sought." The New York Times editorial, usually very critical of Bush, said the President's "body and facial language sometimes seemed downright petulant."
Nader Among Debate Protesters.
The Miami Herald reports Ralph Nader, who is on the ballot in Florida and was excluded from last night's debate, nonetheless was at the University of Miami, site of the debate, last night. Nader was "inarguably the most well-known protester to show up at the presidential debate."
Kerry Camp Dropped Last-Minute Objection To Podium Lights.
Before the debate, reports Reuters, "a last-minute flap blew up on. . .over timer lights on the candidates' podiums, in a sign of how important each campaign saw every detail of the encounter. The 32-page agreement signed by the campaigns. . .specified that timer lights be visible to indicate when a candidate was running out of time to speak." But "when Kerry campaign officials saw the lights were mounted on each podium instead of elsewhere, they balked and tried to have them removed because they could be a distraction. 'It's clear that they wanted to have a game-show quality to the debate,'" senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said of the Bush campaign. . . . In the end, the Kerry campaign decided to drop its complaint at least for the first debate."