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Inside Politics
Inside Politics

The debate goes to ...

By Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry at the end of the first presidential debate
• Audio Slide Show: Debate history
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George W. Bush
John F. Kerry

(CNN) -- The polls are in, and the results are clear: Viewers think John Kerry won the first presidential debate.

Does that mean the Democrat will win the election? Not necessarily. But it does mean he wins the political Play of the Week.

"Who did a better job in the debate?" the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked a sample of debate-watchers.

Before the debate, these voters said they favored President Bush, by eight points.

But by a whopping 16-point margin, they said they thought Kerry did a better job in the debate.

ABC News asked its sample of debate viewers who won.

The answer? Kerry, by nine points.

CBS News polled uncommitted voters who watched the debate.

Again, Kerry won by 15 points.

Kerry has often given murky, complicated explanations of his views. But in this debate, Kerry's answers were mostly crisp and clear. For example, "I've had one position, one consistent position, that Saddam Hussein was a threat. There was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way. And the president chose the wrong way."

Viewers noticed.

By nearly two to one, they thought Kerry expressed himself more clearly than Bush.

But the debate was not all bad news for Bush.

Viewers said they they trusted Bush more to be commander in chief.

Both the ABC and CBS polls found the debate had very little immediate impact on people's vote.

And look at the record of who viewers thought won the first debate in previous presidential campaigns.

In 1984, they thought Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan in the first debate.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis edged out then-Vice President George Bush.

The first debate in 1992 was a big victory for Independent candidate Ross Perot.

And in the first 2000 debate, Vice President Al Gore edged out George W. Bush.

None of those first debate winners won the election.

Now, after seeing Kerry side-by-side with Bush for the first time, voters may now take another look at the Democrat. It's a breakthrough for Kerry -- and the political Play of the Week.

This was a debate about world affairs. It took place in the Miami area, where there are a lot of Cuban-Americans and Jewish voters.

Oddly, no one talked about Cuba. And Israel only got a passing mention.

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