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Analysis of First Presidential Debate; U.S. Assault on Samarra in Iraq

Aired October 1, 2004 - 00:00   ET


AARON BROWN, HOST: Good evening again, I guess. Well, the debates have debated, the spinners have spun and are continuing to spin. The pundits are about to go to work. And to our ear, at least, there was no clear knock-out punch thrown or landed tonight. So the question really is, Did the needle move? In part, that's a function of how you all saw the debate, and in part, it's a function of all the words that will be spoken, including ours, in the next hours.
So we get to it. And we begin, as always, with the Whip, around Coral Gables, for the most part. Our senior White House correspondent, John King, first. So John, a headline.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, the president says he enjoyed the debate tonight. Aides are describing his performance as solid and consistent. They concede Senator John Kerry did a pretty good job, too. They don't think he did enough -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, thank you. Candy Crowley, who covers the Kerry campaign. Candy, I can imagine the headline from your end.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They think he did more than pretty good, Aaron. They came into this debate believing that this was the time for John Kerry to get another chance at a first impression. They believe he made another first impression. It was a good one. And they believe he topped their expectations.

BROWN: Candy, thank you. The candidates say what the candidates do. For a broader view, we'll turn to Jeff Greenfield tonight. Jeff, the headline as you saw the debate?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, Aaron, both candidates went to their strengths. For John Kerry, a skilled debater, the chance to take the president's words and turn them against him. For the president, a resolute determination to stay firmly on message that America can't be led by someone who sends mixed messages. The real question, Aaron: Were there enough persuadables out there that -- no matter how well John Kerry may have done, were there enough persuadables out there so that their votes may have been changed to change the dynamics of this race -- Aaron.

BROWN: That's something we won't know, but we'll take a look at how they went about it. And finally, to Iraq, which was pretty much the subject of the debate, and where American forces are on the move, but so are the insurgents. CNN's Brent Sadler is in Baghdad. So Brent, a headline from there. BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, Iraqi children bore the brunt of a multiple car bomb attack in Baghdad. Two more U.S. soldiers lost their lives in separate attacks, as the U.S. military steps up the pressure on insurgent strongholds.

BROWN: Brent, thank you. We'll get back to you, the situation in Iraq, as we go along. Also coming up in the hour ahead, where the president and the senator go from here, how each on builds on what transpired in Coral Gables. We'll speak with three likely voters -- a Kerry supporter, a Bush supporter, one undecided. Were any minds changed, any nervousness out there? We'll look, as well, at the media. That would be us, wouldn't it? How we factor into the equation. As the spinners spin and the story plays out, sometimes perceptions change.

And you can be sure we'll bring you a taste of how things are playing out on the front pages. The Rooster stays up late out here on the coast. And we hope you will, too, as we go in the hour ahead.

We begin, of course, in Coral Gables, Florida, tonight, where the first presidential debate is now behind both candidates. President Bush post-debate dropped by a rally of supporters at the Coconut Grove Exposition Center around Miami. There's the president, with his brother, the governor. The scene much the same for Senator Kerry, who stopped by a rally at the Miami Arena, where his supporters gathered, and by my Blackberry, were e-mailing busily.

Not far away, CNN's John King and Candy Crowley are standing by, and so we'll start this off with Candy. Candy, we've talked a lot over the last couple of days with what the senator had to do. We talked about needing to be direct and being concise. I would suspect they felt, at a performance level, he accomplished that.

Obviously, a glitch. Can we get to John King? John, are you there? John, are you there?

KING: I am. I'm here, Aaron.

BROWN: OK, John, let's start, as things turn out by default, at least, with you. The president -- and someone described it as a "one- trick pony." The president had a very clear message. I did not hear -- you'll correct me because you've heard him more. But I didn't really hear the president say a single new thing tonight.

KING: You did not. He cast what he called Senator Kerry's vacillation in some new ways, but nothing new from the president at all in terms of message, even some Republicans conceding that they wish the president had done more in explaining and defending his policy and his decisions in Iraq before pivoting to what they concede is a pivotal challenge for the president. Mr. Bush came into this debate having said for weeks now on the campaign trail Senator Kerry is the wrong man at this time to be commander-in-chief because of the challenges we face in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Aides believe he stuck to that message quite well, Mr. Bush time and time again saying Senator Kerry had sent mixed signals, he had changed his position on Iraq and other key facets in the war on terrorism, the president essentially making this point. He said Senator Kerry had changed his mind so many times that it undermines his ability to lead the troops, it would undermine his ability to have the respect of the Iraqi people at this key moment. The president said it would even undermine Senator Kerry's ability to deliver on that big promise, the one where Senator Kerry says he could bring more allies to the mission in Iraq.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So what's the message going to be, Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time? I know how these people think. I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently. They're not going to follow somebody who says this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. They're not going to follow somebody whose core convictions keep changing because of politics in America.


KING: Now, Bush aides came into this debate saying they believed Senator Kerry was the better debater when it came to skills. They left the hall tonight saying that Senator Kerry had proven that. They concede that their candidate essentially lost the debate, if you were keeping points, like a debate coach would. They believe, though, that President Bush did what he needed to do, in the sense of continuing to raise doubts about Senator Kerry's ability to be commander-in-chief. Aaron, they say the president came into this debate with the lead when the voters are asked, Who do you trust most on key leadership issues? Who do you trust most to handle the situation in Iraq? Who do you trust most to handle the global war on terrorism? They say that should be the true test of this debate, what the polls show, what the American people think on those questions 72 hours or so from now.

They concede it wasn't the president's best performance, but they think -- they think Senator Kerry did not score any kind of a knock- out punch by any means of the imagination, and they think the president defended his turf on that key leadership question -- Aaron.

BROWN: Let me -- let me ask -- let me ask the question I think will come up a bunch tonight, actually. If this is the president's core issue, his strongest suit, and even his own guys now are saying he did not win out there, do they have to change tactically anything they're doing going into the other debates?

KING: They do not. I mean, obviously, the town hall debate, which is the next one, is a bit more of a wild card. The president himself tipped off his strategy for the third debate, on domestic policy, in his post-debate rally tonight, talking about how Senator Kerry would raise your taxes and hurt the economy. Look for that in debate No. 3.

By tonight -- and I've covered the campaign and I've covered plenty of these debates -- it is crystal clear President Bush is a much better campaigner, a much better candidate giving stump speeches than he is in this debate format. One of his advisers even said tonight when I asked him what was the most important thing about the debate, he said, Checking the box, getting them over with.

BROWN: OK. John, thank you. John King, our senior White House correspondent, handling the president's side of things.

Again to Candy Crowley, who's handling the Kerry side of things. We talked about, Candy, or we're starting to talk about the things the senator had to do. He stood up there, arguably looked presidential and handled himself pretty well.

CROWLEY: They honestly believe that, yes, inside the Kerry campaign. They say, Look, he came into this. It really was another chance at a first impression. We did not hear anything that was new from John Kerry, but we heard it in a more concise form. And he was saying it to a lot more people. So that is really a good note for John Kerry to leave this debate on.

What they wanted him to do, first and foremost, was be the man that people could look at and say, Gee, I can see him as commander-in- chief during a time of war. And over and over again, one of the things that Kerry returned to was not just that he could work with the allies better, but that he would also be tough.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I have no intention of wilting. I've never wilted in my life. And I've never wavered in my life. I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq, and my position has been consistent. Saddam Hussein is a threat. He needed to be disarmed. We needed to go to the U.N. The president needed the authority to use force in order to be able to get him to do something because he never did it without threat of force. But we didn't need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace.


CROWLEY: Now, the Kerry campaign would concede no real knock-out punch here for John Kerry, but certainly, he shows that he is, at this point, still a very strong player -- Aaron.

BROWN: All right, just -- I hate questions like this, but I hate answering them more than asking them. On a 1-to-10 scale, with 1 being really depressed and 10 being giddy off the charts, where's the Kerry campaign right now?

CROWLEY: About 8 or 9. They feel pretty good. They really do. They -- you know, the thing that they worried about the most was would the -- you know, would John Kerry come off looking stiff? Would he come off not likable because George Bush is so likable. I think that they feel that, you know, that was not a factor. And I think they feel that they got across and that he came across as very strong, as well as very knowledgeable in what is perceived to be the president's strong suit.

BROWN: Candy, thanks a lot. Candy Crowley down in Coral Gables tonight.

Just as the spin follows the debate, so does the polling, some fact-checking, as well. And we have a little of each. The first poll out is pretty interesting stuff. Bill Schneider joins us with more on that. Bill, do you want to start with facts or polls?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let's take a look at the facts. President Bush made this claim about the number of al Qaeda leaders captured or killed. In fact, he made it twice. Take a listen.


BUSH: Of course, we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean, bin Laden. He's -- he's -- he's isolated. Seventy-five percent of his people have been brought to justice.


SCHNEIDER: Misleading. Seventy-five percent of known al Qaeda leaders at the time of the September 11 attacks have been captured or killed, but counterterrorism experts say we don't know how many people al Qaeda now has. Some of them have been replaced. And that is a misleading figure.

Bush also claimed there are 100,000 trained Iraqi forces. He's adding together army, security forces, police, border guards, and they have very different levels of training. He also said he fought a preemptive war in Iraq because, quote, "the enemy attacked us." Kerry caught him on that. The 9/11 commission found no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Now, let's go to Senator Kerry. He criticized the administration's troop commitment to Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, by making this statement about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.


KERRY: The president moved the troops, so he's got 10 times the number of troops in Iraq than he has in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is.


SCHNEIDER: Well, American intelligence believes that Osama bin Laden is not in Afghanistan. He and other top leaders of al Qaeda are believed to be in Pakistan, where the United States doesn't operate.

Kerry also said General Shinseki was forced to retire as a result of his criticism of troop levels in Iraq, but his retirement was announced in April of 2002, and he made the statement, his criticism of troop levels, in 2003.

And finally, Kerry said that the United States is paying 90 percent of the cost in Iraq, $200 billion. Well, that does overestimate the cost, at least for now. The Office of Management and Budget said it has cost $120 billion this year, not $200 billion. And the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost would hit $230 billion, but over the next 10 years -- Aaron.

BROWN: Over the next 10 years? And we're at what number now?

SCHNEIDER: At $120 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, not $200 billion.

BROWN: And it's going to take -- and it's going to take another 10 years to get to $200 billion?

SCHNEIDER: That's what the Office of Management and -- the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

BROWN: OK. They probably have better calculators than I have common sense, but I'm going to go back and look at those numbers, just in case.

On the subject of numbers, coming in, I was handed a -- I guess you'd call it a flash Gallup poll, "USA Today"/CNN Gallup poll. What does it tell us?

SCHNEIDER: What does it tell us? Well, the people -- we interviewed people who watched the debates. These people started out favoring Bush 52 to 44. But when we asked them, Who do you think did the best job in the debate? Look at this! Kerry 53 percent, Bush 37, a clear victory for Kerry among people who started out favoring Bush.

Now, let's see how their opinions of the candidates changed. We asked them, How did the debate affect your opinion of John Kerry? And the answer was almost half, 46 percent, said they have a more favorable opinion of Kerry as a result of the debate, just 13 less favorable. Bush not nearly that big an effect, 21 more favorable, 17 less favorable.

Aaron, I'll tell you what we found that was really interesting. By a very clear margin, 2 to 1, people said they thought Kerry expressed himself more clearly. Is there any good news for Bush in the results of the debate? Well, a majority continue to believe that he demonstrated he's tough enough for the job. And Bush continues to have the edge when the debate viewers were asked, Who would do a better job handling Iraq and who would do a better job as commander- in-chief? So on toughness and steadfastness, Bush continues to have the edge, even among these debate viewers, who clearly thought Kerry was the winner of the debate.

BROWN: Bill, thank you very much. Bill Schneider, who's handling numbers and such for us tonight.

Last night, Jeff Greenfield -- or was it his cigar-chomping twin brother, Irv -- had some advice for the senator and the president on how to win the debate tonight, or at least, how to avoid losing it. Did they listen? Perhaps, perhaps not. But did they do it, more importantly? Jeff joins us now.

Jeff, go at it. I want to get one question in, if you don't get to it. Why don't you just start.

GREENFIELD: OK. You remember that before I was advising these guys, I showed you that early in their careers, both Bush and Kerry had developed debating styles that were pretty consistent throughout their careers. We saw that again tonight. From Bush, the resolute determination to stay on message, and this case, a message about message. Just take a listen to the president.


BUSH: Had the honor of visiting with Prime Minister Allawi. He's a strong, courageous leader. He believes in the freedom of the Iraqi people. He doesn't want U.S. leadership, however, to send mixed signals.


GREENFIELD: Now, if the president said that once, he said the phrase "mixed message" perhaps a dozen times. And John Kerry, at one point in the debate, actually picked up on that, which shows his strength. He, as a classic debater, knows how to take an opponent's words and turn them to his favor. I think you'll get a taste of that right here.


KERRY: And today we are 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the costs. And meanwhile, North Korea has gotten nuclear weapons. Talk about mixed messages!


GREENFIELD: Now, I think Bill Schneider's scientific poll is buttressed by an extremely unscientific poll of mine, namely, talking to one Democratic operative and hearing from one Republican operative, both of whom felt this was a good night for Kerry. And one important point. The reporters in this room did not see the debate that 60 or 80 million people saw. They did not see the split-screen coverage, which, according to my Democratic operative source, really favored Kerry in terms of the atmospherics.

But what we don't know, Aaron -- and this is really important -- is how many people who watched this debate changed their minds about who they might vote for. If people came into this debate already having made up their minds, then it's like a sports event in which people say, My team lost, if they were for Bush and they thought Kerry won. That's something we're not going to know for another 48 or 72 hours, Aaron.

BROWN: I'm not sure which -- which feed you saw, whether you saw the split screen or not. So let me just give you my view of this, that the president often looked annoyed, maybe a little distracted, rolled his eyes a bit. I thought the cutaway question, which was kicked around a lot in the last 24 hours, actually did hurt the president, at least in lower-case letters. GREENFIELD: That's exactly what I mean. And what I'm saying is the reporters here watching in the press filing center got a separate feed, where they did not see the two guys matched up against each other. If you're talking about atmospherics, I think it -- I think it's fair to say that if you tuned in this debate and didn't know anything and asked which one was more in command of the room, which is something very important in political debates, who controlled the room, Kerry did a better job than Bush. And that's one example.

I mean, as disciplined a campaign as the president's must have told him -- hey, look, the networks aren't playing by the rules we thought. They're going to show you when you're not on camera -- when you're not speaking, so be aware of that. But as to how much effect that has, when people still think the president is tougher and a better commander-in-chief, I'm not going to say only time will tell, Aaron, because you'd shoot me, but only time will tell, Aaron.

BROWN: I can't shoot you, and I never would anyway. You're my friend. Thank you. Jeff Greenfield in Florida tonight.


BROWN: Ordinarily at this point, we would pause here, wait a beat and say there was other news in the world and that we'll get back to the debate. And that's true. But the fact is, the other news is the news. Iraq, as you've heard mentioned already, was especially bloody today, and more is happening as we speak. According to CNN's Jane Arraf, who's embedded with American forces, a U.S. Army brigade, about 3,000 strong, conducting a major offensive in Samarra and has reached the center of the city. Samarra has been a hotbed of insurgent activity. Perhaps 2,000 or more insurgents there.

As for the rest of the day, and it wasn't pleasant, here again Brent Sadler.


SADLER (voice-over): Iraqi children fell victim to a series of deadly bomb blasts in a western district of Baghdad. The explosions targeted the official opening of a new sewage system for local residents, a small step in the struggle to improve essential services in the capital. But two near simultaneous car bombs created a horrifying scene, as parked vehicles burst into flames and shrapnel tore into a crowd made up of Iraqi officials, U.S. military personnel and school children.

It was supposed to be a day of joy, with U.S. troops reportedly handing out candy shortly before the attack. But it turned into carnage, U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces helping to evacuate the scores of dead and some 140 wounded. Among the injured, 10 U.S. soldiers.

But the enduring images of this attack are those of children killed or maimed, the highest number of child casualties, say doctors here, in a single attack, sparking outrage amid the grief.


U.S. military officials say those kind of devastating attacks are being planned and implemented by terrorists operating out of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, terrorists who work under the control of top terror suspect Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Now, Aaron, we know that a major counter-insurgency offensive has got underway in the past few hours in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, a counter-insurgency offensive, say Iraqi government officials, that will eventually turn its sights on Fallujah, currently a no-go area for U.S. and Iraqi forces.

BROWN: Brent, thank you.

And on that subject, Jane Arraf is embedded with the U.S. Army, who's moving into Samarra. We have Jane on the phone with us. Jane, tell us what you can tell us.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, we're now more than eight hours into this major assault, this major offensive in the city of Samarra. And as the sun came up this morning, it was a very eerie scene, hundreds of U.S. soldiers walking through the streets as they moved from sector to sector. We're in a Bradley, a Bradley fighting vehicle, and we're now basically on the edge of the city. The troops, of course, will be going further in.

But this is a major, all-out assault, a brigade-level offensive to root out insurgents. You can see from where we're standing the golden mosque, which is one of the most important sites in Shia Islam. This is a city with an amazing history, and also a city that has been a center of the insurgency. American forces have not gone in here since the handover to sovereignty until three weeks ago, when they broke an agreement to stay out of the city, came back in, and they're now launching a major offensive to retake it -- Aaron.

BROWN: Jane, we look forward to your reporting on how this all plays out. Thank you. Stay safe out there.

We have much more tonight on the debate from both sides. Our pundits, the roundtable joins us. Much ahead as NEWSNIGHT continues from Los Angeles.


BROWN: Bill Schneider had some instant polling a bit earlier. We turn now to the retail version of that. Our sample size tonight is three: Karen Juarez Boyd, a Bush supporter, Monique Pardo, who is undecided, or at least started the night so, and Tina McKinnor, who supports Senator Kerry. And they are all with us here in Los Angeles.

Karen, the early polling, the general perception is that your guy lost tonight. Do you agree with that?

KAREN JUAREZ BOYD (R), BUSH SUPPORTER: I don't agree with that. I think that tonight he was clear that Iraq is the cornerstone in the war on terrorism. I wish there would have been more discussion on foreign policy. But clearly, Bush did talk about that this is a war of global terrorism, versus Kerry was focused on Osama bin Laden.

BROWN: Tina, the early perception is that your guy won tonight but maybe didn't move the needle. What is it that people aren't hearing from him that you hear from him?

TINA MCKINNOR (D), KERRY SUPPORTER: Well, I heard that Kerry was -- well, first of all, he showed his strength. He commanded -- oh, God. This is live!

BROWN: It's live. You're doing fine.

MCKINNOR: Oh, God! And I'm nervous! Well, first of all, he did a phenomenal job tonight. Kerry won this one hands down. America saw our future president tonight. And he showed his strength. He was direct on the questions. He actually answered all the questions. I have no doubt that Kerry would lead this country on the fight -- the fight on terrorism. I think that he will bring a fresh start to the war in Iraq, so that we can go in and finish the job.

BROWN: That was the message he was trying to sell.

Monique, you started the day undecided. Do you remain undecided tonight?

MONIQUE PARDO (I), UNDECIDED: Well, being part of the 19 percent of Americans who have -- sit on the fence on this issue, I came into this debate with the clearest of minds, hoping to find a reason to vote for one of these candidates whole-heartedly. And I have to agree with Tina, Kerry presented himself to be poised, knowledgeable. He was extremely charismatic. While Bush I found to be a bit uneasy, a bit defensive, and just kind of contradictory to what his -- his entire speech was about...

BROWN: Did he get your...

PARDO: ... being on the offense here.

BROWN: Did Senator Kerry get your vote tonight, or just get your respect tonight?

PARDO: He garnered my respect. However, personally, I'm waiting for the third debate. I'm a huge proponent for domestic issues, particularly abortion, gay rights, the death penalty. And I'm waiting to see how they're going to duke it out on that debate.

BROWN: Let me move this back around. One of the reasons that we have three women here is that the group everyone seems to be fighting over right now are what we used to call soccer moms and now call security moms. Is there -- Karen, let me start with you. We'll do the same order. Is there any issue in this campaign that matters more to you than homeland security, the war on terror, however we want to phrase it?

BOYD: No, this is really foremost, the most important for me because it has -- there are so many implications, things that can happen from -- where if we do not fight this war effectively, we have, I think, some real risks domestically, and then with that, economic risk, too.

BROWN: Tina, I'll make this hard, 10 seconds. Any issue more important to you than the war on terror?

MCKINNOR: The draft. I have a 15 and 16-year-old sons, two boys, and I am terrified what could happen to them in the next several years.

BROWN: OK. And Monique, last word. Is the war on terror the issue to you?

PARDO: It is not the issue to me. It is an extremely important issue, but I'd have to -- I'd be honest in saying education, for me, is where it begins. And it needs to begin domestically. It needs to begin here at home. That needs to be our main priority.

BROWN: Monique, thanks. Don't run away from us yet. We sometimes refer to you all as "civilians" in the business, not professional talk show cable guests. You did great. Thanks for coming in.

PARDO: Thank you.

BOYD: Thank you for having us, Aaron.


BROWN: Thank you. We'll take a break. We'll talk to the professionals in a moment.


BROWN: Well, serious stakes tonight. We're pleased, as always, to welcome back to "The Brown Table," back into the mix. They are Nina Easton of the "Boston Globe," Terry Neal of there in Washington. In Coral Gables, John Harwood if "The Wall Street Journal."

We're glad to see all.

Terry, you get a first whack at it. I thought it was a terrific debate, on balance. I thought both guys did really well, and that substance was dealt with.

TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Yes, I thought it was a pretty good debate, too. I thought that John Kerry had the slight edge, but I would definitely not give him a strong edge. I thought that he controlled the tempo of the -- of the debate. I thought that Bush spent a lot of time sort of answering Kerry's charges and the things that Kerry was saying, rather than setting the tone himself.

And for that, I would give Kerry a alight edge.

BROWN: Are you surprised, then, just in a word or two, that the early polling, at least, gives Senator Kerry a stronger edge than you do? NEAL: Well, no I'm not, because...


NEAL: ... I think what's happening here is a lot of people know -- didn't know very much about John Kerry. And they probably were impressed. People know who George W. Bush is.

BROWN: Nina, if the argument is the president rushed to war. I mean, if that's what the election turns on, let me suggest that Senator Kerry did pretty well tonight.

But if the argument is how do we get -- how do we end it or how do we get out of there, I'm not so sure he scored quite as well. Do you think I'm onto something or not?

NINA EASTON, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Well, I think that's right. I think very much tonight you saw -- you saw clearly two different men. You saw a thinker and a believer.

You saw in John Kerry, if you want, nuance and complexity, this was your guy. If you -- if you want boldness, clarity and so forth, George Bush was your guy. And I do agree with Terry. I think it was more of a draw than the initial polls we're seeing.

And it is a question, this whole question of Iraq. It comes back to haunt both of them. I mean, John Kerry criticizes Bush's -- going towards a colossal failure in Iraq. And then George Bush turns that around and says, you know, "Your policies in Iraq have been shifting."

And so they were both -- I think they both had weaknesses that came through tonight, and their strengths came through, as well.

BROWN: Nina, do you think that, as quickly as you can, that Senator Kerry did any -- gave himself any help in dealing with the flip-flop question on Iraq?

EASTON: To some extent, when he said back to Bush, "Well, clarity isn't necessarily a virtue if you -- if your clarity means you're making a mistake."

And so again, he made that -- he made that clear. And -- and I think if he keeps going back to that -- I was also struck that he didn't go back more to the -- you keep on this show talking about the casualties in Iraq. And I thought he was very much at his strongest when he talked about the casualties and the -- and the costs of Iraq.

And I was surprised that he didn't go back to that. And I'm surprised that he didn't talk more about his Senate career, and that he kept hearkening back to Vietnam once again.

BROWN: Yes, I heard three, maybe four references.


BROWN: John, I'm not sure. Did you see the cutaways tonight? JOHN HARWOOD, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Yes.


HARWOOD: The Democrats were delighted by them.

BROWN: Yes, I thought the president, and I don't think this is, like, a huge deal. Though we learned four years ago it is -- and four years before that that sometimes it can be a bigger deal than you think.

The president looked, sometimes, sort of disgusted by the whole process.

HARWOOD: Yes, and when you talk privately to Republicans, they thought he looked annoyed and those cutaways did not serve him well.

You know, you had each candidate playing to their underlying strengths with the electorate. John Kerry saying, "You want more of the same? Bush is your guy. You want change? That's me."

And Bush on the other hand kept going back to saying, "You can't trust this guy because he flips around all the time."

The question about the debate is that did George Bush go to the well too often with that line? John Kerry, as Nina said, was more cerebral, took arguments to the second and third level. George Bush kept repeating over and over "mixed messages"; you can't trust him, he changes his position.

BROWN: Well, and that is, in a sense, George Bush. He is the master of -- he is a master of staying on message. They came in here with a clear message. They've been doing it for months. It has worked for them. Why change it?

HARWOOD: Well, you can't change it. George Bush is who he is. And I've talked to one Bush strategist tonight who said yes, he's a little awkward at times. Kerry's a little bit smoother, sometimes steadier.

On the other hand, that Bush speaking style, blunt spoken. He's very human in the way he pauses before he delivers answers. It connects with the American people. Certainly, we've seen that's true for several months. So that even if John Kerry out pointed the president tonight, we're going to have to look over the next few days to see if it moves the ballot. Because the ballot hasn't moved much lately.

BROWN: No, it hasn't. John, Terry, Nina, thank you. It's good to see you all tonight. Thank you very much.

There are -- one of the things we did is watch a group of voters out in Ohio as they watched the debate. And we'll take a look at how they thought and what it tells us as we continue from Los Angeles tonight.


BROWN: Well, it's not surprising different people see the same thing and see it somehow differently.

We're join from San Francisco tonight by Dan Schnur, one of California's leading Republican political and media strategists. He's worked with four presidential campaigns and teaches courses in politics and campaigning at Cal Berkeley.

And with us here in L.A. Marty Kaplan, the director of University of Southern Cal's Normal Lear Center, which studies, as I learned this afternoon, the intersection of politics and entertainment. Mr. Kaplan a former speechwriter as well for former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Long intro. Good to have you both.

Dan, let me start with you. I think there is a perception, at least in the last hour or two that I've been listening and asking questions, that the president may have gone to the well, if you will, a bit too often.

DAN SCHNUR, REPUBLICAN MEDIA STRATEGIST: Well, I just want to make a couple of quick points, Aaron. One is if the overwhelming majority of voters, as hard as it is for people like us to believe, didn't watch the debate tonight. They'll watch the news coverage tomorrow morning or the next few days.

And for them, either candidate engaged in that type of message repetition is going to have that sort of impact, because they're only going to hear it once.

The second point I'd make, real quickly, is that I don't think either candidate accomplished the thing they needed to most tonight.

John Kerry needed to give a very clear answer on where he's been on the war in Iraq philosophically and what he would do differently than George Bush moving forward. I think George Bush needed to acknowledge that even though things are going in his direction, he believes, in Iraq that there are problems and challenges there.

I don't think either one of them accomplished their goals.

BROWN: That's why I love this program. People often surprise.

Marty, do you agree with that, that Senator Kerry didn't accomplish what he needed to accomplish?

MARTY KAPLAN, DIRECTOR, USC'S NORMAN LEAR CENTER: No, I think Senator Kerry wiped the floor with the president. I think we saw the bookend to something that started the week of 9/11.

When 9/11 happened, I think the nation was terrified that it didn't have a president strong enough to rise to the occasion. And for several days, we tried desperately to invest him with all of our hopes. And finally, standing on that rubble, he seemed to accomplish that.

Tonight, with those split screens, I think the wind came out of the president and found another place to go.

I watched it on C-SPAN, which only had split screens for the whole evening. And the president looked disturbed, whiny, confused...

BROWN: But just going back to the point -- and we learned this in the Gore-Bush debate of four years ago, that the early take on the debate can change once we weigh in, the spinners weigh in, the pundits weigh in and so on.

My point being here the cutaway thing probably isn't going to be the story tomorrow.

KAPLAN: I'm not so sure. I think the rolling eyes, the squinting, the Al Gore sighs were the story out of the 2000 debates. And I think the body language equivalent of that is that.

In terms of language, I think it's when the president said, "When we were attacked" and John Kerry said, "We weren't attacked. That's the problem. It was Osama who attacked us."

I think that's the sound bite that's going to live 1,000 times and make the difference.

BROWN: Dan, we'll give you the last word on this. Do you think that the president or the president's men have to, as a result of this -- it's awfully early to make this sort of judgment, I'll agree -- change strategy for the debate a week from tomorrow?

SCHNUR: I do think the president was somewhat nervous. And there's no question a foreign policy debate ought to have been his strongest. We've seen historically that, like John Kerry, ironically, he's strongest when his back is up against the wall. Maybe it just gets his competitive juices going.

I would say this, though, to Marty's point -- and by the way, Marty made the point in exactly the way that I would hope a former Walter Mondale staffer would, Mr. Kaplan. What I would say is this, George Bush's foibles tonight probably show up on "Saturday Night Live." John Kerry's show up in George Bush campaign commercials.

When John Kerry talks, for example, about passing the global test on preemptive action, it's not as obvious to the naked eye that was a low point in the debate, but by the time that Bush campaign gets through with it, we'll be hearing things like that over and over again.

Again, not a great night for either. We'll see what happens in Round Two.

BROWN: Dan, good to see you. Mary, good to see you again.

KAPLAN: Thank you, Aaron.

BROWN: Appreciate you coming. We'll talk, hopefully, soon again. Thank you.

HARWOOD: Thank you.

BROWN: We'll talk with Aaron McGruder, the cartoonist with an edge, to say the least. We'll take a break first. This is NEWSNIGHT, on the road in Los Angeles.


BROWN: During the conventions, we used this space to explore a different point of view, a contrarian point of view, if you will. It's safe to say there's frequently no more contrarian view than a cartoonist.

We're joined by Aaron McGruder. His cartoon, "The Boondocks," is syndicated most days in over 300 newspapers, but sometimes a few less, depending on the material.

Good to see you.


BROWN: All right. Two sentences: who won the debate? You're going to say this.

MCGRUDER: Kerry. He got his ass whooped.

BROWN: Who did?

MCGRUDER: Kerry. I'm sorry. No, I'm sorry. George Bush.

BROWN: You set that whole line up, and then you blew it.

MCGRUDER: I did. No, it was -- it was a very clear victory.

You know, what bothers me about shows like this, and all the news shows, after Bush talks I hear all these smart people completely ignoring the elephant in the room. And the elephant in the room, which nobody wants to say, is that Bush is not a smart man. He can't articulate well. He doesn't speak in complete sentences.

BROWN: Well...

MCGRUDER: And everyone just ignores it, like that's OK.

BROWN: OK. So...

MCGRUDER: But he's really dumb.

BROWN: OK. That's a different thing. Let's say he is not articulate. And I think they would concede he's not the most articulate guy on the planet. It doesn't mean he doesn't have convictions. It doesn't mean he believes in some things. It doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong. It just means he can't express himself.

MCGRUDER: But beliefs don't mean anything if you're stupid. And not only that, but he -- it's almost as though he's talking to the dumbest segment of society, whereas Kerry...

BROWN: Aaron, don't you think that's an incredibly arrogant way to look at the world?

MCGRUDER: It's -- you know, it's real, you know? It's just that nobody is saying the obvious, which is the man is not smart and he's the president.

BROWN: I wouldn't say that...

MCGRUDER: Everybody knows it, but nobody is saying it.

BROWN: What does that say, then, about the 52 or three or one, or maybe it's 49.5 tonight, percent of the country that not only believes he is smart enough to run the country now but should be the guy to run the country for the next four years?

MCGRUDER: I think they have been woefully misled. I think -- I think Americans have a natural inclination, like all people around the world, to believe that their government is not corrupt, that the people are fair and smart and they're not lying to them.

And history doesn't prove that out. And current events doesn't prove that out. The American people have been lied to, and it's at the point now where I think that that percentage of people simply are not interested in the truth. They don't want to go down the road the thought that the president, one, is not intelligent; and two, the people behind the president who are intelligent are deliberately lying and misleading the American people constantly.

BROWN: Let me see -- let me see how cynical you are.


BROWN: Do you believe that a Kerry presidency would be there -- would be more honest, or is this a corruption, in your view, of the entire establishment?

MCGRUDER: I -- I don't blame it -- I mean, to say the establishment is oversimplified. I think that the institution of journalism has failed in its responsibility to hold the government accountable. The government's doing what it's supposed to do when left unchecked.

I do think Kerry would be better than Bush. I think he would be more honest. I think he would be more intelligent. But that's -- everybody knows that already. That's not really in anyone's debate. It's just people have picked a side.

It's -- you know, it's like, you know -- it's the kind of weird God people in the middle of America, the people that live on the coasts fly over. We don't talk to those people. We don't understand those people, and they don't understand us.

But nobody just says the obvious, that their president can't articulate himself and is dumb. And it drives me nuts. BROWN: I got all that.

MCGRUDER: There you go.

BROWN: Nice to meet you.

MCGRUDER: It is a pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

BROWN: Come back, too.

MCGRUDER: If you let me.

BROWN: I will. We're equal opportunity around here.

MCGRUDER: There you go.

BROWN: In every respect. Thank you.

We'll wrap it -- no we won't. "Morning Papers" is still ahead. We'll be right back from Los Angeles.


BROWN: Okey-doke. Time to check morning papers from around the country and around the country, as it turns out. Though we may get some oldies in.

Enough with the orchestra there. Take it out of my ear. Thank you. You're in Los Angeles, and you had to have a lot of music. It's just the way it is here in L.A.

The "Miami Herald." The debate was in Miami, or at least Coral Gables. And they lead with the debates. It's a little tricky for the newspapers. They had to come up with headlines pretty quick, and this is a pretty benign headline, isn't it? "Face to Face" was the headline in the "Miami Herald."

Threw a couple quick quotes out in the early part of the debate. "Bush and Kerry Square Off Over Iraq War."

I don't know how you saw it, but I thought it was a terrific debate, and it was interesting to watch. And there was just enough tension sort of going on to make it fun in a way I sometimes see things.

"Washington Times," "Bush Rips Pre-9/11 View." So they give the president the strong headline, bold headline in the somewhat conservative -- I think that's fair to say -- "Washington Times."

"Kerry Says He Would be Better Protector."

I know why I'm having trouble. I have my glasses on.

It's funny how little, honestly, Iraq is on the front page of the paper. "Cincinnati Inquirer," "Bush, Kerry Stress Differences on Iraq." A couple of local stories. This is absolutely a front-page story, though. "Vioxx Pulled from the Market; Strokes, Heart Risks Cited." Merck is -- the big arthritis drug of Merck's, and Merck got hammered in the stock market today because of it. Heavily advertised drug.

Anyway, "Chicago Sun-Times," we haven't had it all week. "Faceoff on Iraq" is the headline. The weather tomorrow in Chicago, wherever we go, is affable.

We'll wrap it up from L.A. We'll tell you about tomorrow in a moment.


BROWN: Before we go, a quick reminder. We're in Las Vegas tomorrow night. They're teaching the crew the fine art of black jack. Seven Pacific, getting used to saying that. Join us tomorrow.

Next debates take place in Cleveland. Vice presidential debate on the fifth. Next president debate is in St. Louis on the eighth, and Tempe, Arizona on the 13th, if you're filling out your dance card on that. We'll have programs after all of them.

Again, we're in Las Vegas tomorrow to round out our week on the road. We hope you'll join us from there. Until then, good night for all of us. Good night.


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