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Paul Begala's Debate Blog: Round 1

Editor's Note: Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's political debate program "Crossfire," is providing a view from the left on the first presidential debate through this blog. Follow along as he shares his observations and send us your own by typing them in the "Share Your Comments" box to the right.

Kerry looked more presidential

CNN's Paul Begala
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Posted: 10:32 p.m. ET

Bottom line: Kerry looked more presidential than the president did. Perhaps Bush believes his own spinners. He seemed surprised and a bit befuddled to be confronted not by the weak, waffling, French-looking wimp he attacks on the stump. Instead, he saw a strong, confident leader, in command of both the facts and the debate itself. Bush spent most of the night on defense -- and you don't win on defense.

Bush is like a PAC-10 football team: He just doesn't play defense well.

Kerry puts it clearly

Posted: 10:28 p.m. ET

Kerry's using short, strong, clear sentences. He just said, "He [Saddam] was a threat. That's not the issue. It's what you do about the threat." No one could put it more clearly. You may agree or disagree with Kerry, but you can no longer say he hasn't been clear about where he disagrees with Mr. Bush about Iraq.

What changed tactics?

Posted: 10:20 p.m. ET

Bush for the first time just acknowledged that he would change tactics in Iraq. How? What? Which ones? It's reminiscent of his comment that he "miscalculated" in Iraq -- but what recalculations has he made?

Bush's best moment

Posted: 10:15 p.m. ET

Bush's best moment is when he was praising Kerry. He was gracious and generous and credible. It's also the first time in the debate he was on the offense. He made the turn from praising Kerry's character to damning his record very effectively.

Shades of Reagan

Posted: 10:09 p.m. ET

Okay, now it's getting weird. In a discussion of the 1,052 brave soldiers who've died in Iraq, and the 138,000 other troops Mr. Bush has over there, our president wandered off into a discussion of the International Criminal Court. Shades of Reagan in the first debate in 1984. But the big difference is, as Ron Reagan himself has noted, George W. Bush is no Gipper. The Gipper recovered masterfully with his characteristic grace -- President Bush just looks plain weird.

Meanwhile, Kerry seems more like a president than the president. He's got a greater command of the facts, and a greater sense of ease at the podium. I don't know where the windy, verbose Sen. Kerry went, but I sure like the focused, strong future commander in chief.

Downright goofy

Posted: 10:06 p.m. ET

Bush seemed downright goofy when he bragged that he knew Osama bin Laden attacked us.

Kerry strong tonight

Posted: 10:03 p.m. ET

Man, we're down to the last 27 minutes. You know I'm a Kerry supporter, but only the most ardent Bush spinner is going to be able to say Kerry was anything but strong tonight.

PREDICTION: The Bushes will say it was a non-event.

TRANSLATION: Bush was befuddled and defensive; Kerry kicked his butt.

Is Bush distracted or something?

Posted: 9:57 p.m. ET

Kerry challenged Bush, saying he didn't have a plan for Iraq other than more of the same. Bush didn't rise to the occasion, didn't say what his plan is -- just repeated his attack that Kerry called it the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kerry is definitely meeting the "strength test." Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bush is so defensive you wonder if he's been getting enough sleep, or if he's distracted or something.

What's Bush talking about?

Posted: 9:44 p.m. ET

Kerry makes the point that Osama bin Laden is using the invasion of Iraq to stir up anti-American hatred. An inarguably true point. Bush's response is that Osama bin Laden can't determine our policy is bizarre. What's he talking about?

Kerry drilling stats

Posted: 9:41 p.m. ET

Kerry is drilling that stat of 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost.

Bush hasn't answered it -- because it's simply a fact.

Bush defensive

Posted: 9:38 p.m. ET

I'm surprised at how defensive and hesitant Bush is. In prior debates he was on the attack, here he's responding to Kerry in a very defensive way. A good sign Kerry is dominating the discussion.

Kerry stumps Bush

Posted: 9:35 p.m. ET

Kerry nailed Bush on the 100,000 hours of tapes from terrorists that the FBI hasn't translated. Bush's response was, "It's my job to keep America safe ... " Huh? He said we're doing all we can but he didn't explain why his administration is 100,000 hours behind on translating the terrorists' conversations.

Bush 'befuddled'?

Posted: 9:31 p.m. ET

Bush seemed befuddled answering Kerry's charge that he prefers tax cuts for the rich to funding homeland security. He made some vague, unfocused reference to a "tax gap." It was weird.

Bush grimace

Posted: 9:28 p.m. ET

The reaction shots are none too kind to our president. As Kerry was going through his argument that Bush has neglected homeland security, Bush was giving that grimace/smirk that he displays when he's angry. It was Kerry's best moment so far.

Kerry shifts debate to the future

Posted: 9:26 p.m. ET

Kerry has now shifted the debate off of the past -- whether it was wise to go to war -- and onto the present: Whether the president is in denial about how bad things are in Iraq.

Bush went straight back to the past. He isn't giving the impression that he has a plan.


Posted: 9:21 p.m. ET

Okay, Bush's first fumble. He stumbled around -- saying uhhh, uhhh -- before calling terrorists "folks." Folks? Folks are your in-laws. Folks are your neighbors. Folks are your friends. Folk music is boring. But terrorists are not "folks." They're animals, murderers, pigs, thugs. But folks?

Bush opening statement

Posted: 9:14 p.m. ET

Bush seems less certain, a little less strong than he is on the stump. He dodged the question about whether he thinks electing Kerry would mean another 9/11 for America. That's pretty gutless. He sends Dick Cheney out to make this vicious attack on Kerry, but when they're face-to-face Bush wimps out.

The networks are taking reaction shots. Good for them. No politician should ever tell the free press where to point their cameras.

Kerry opening statement

Posted: 9:09 p.m. ET

OK, Kerry's off to a good start. His answer to the first question was crisp, strong and focused.

Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's political debate program "Crossfire," worked in the Clinton administration as counselor to the president and served as his principal public spokesman.

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