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Inside Politics

Few fireworks, but Kerry gets slight edge

A TV set display in Manila, Philippines, carries the Bush-Kerry debate.
Check out how they reacted to the debate:  CNN's Paul Begala and Robert Novak
October 5
Vice presidential debate: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

October 8
Second presidential debate: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

October 13
Third presidential debate: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

All debates start at 9 p.m. ET
Will the presidential debates impact the outcome of the election?
Carlos Watson
The Inside Edge
America Votes 2004

CORAL GABLES, Florida (CNN) -- Thursday night's presidential debate was solid and serious, appropriate for the first post-9/11 forum and at a time when some 135,000 U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq.

The University of Miami showdown won't likely produce dramatic poll swings.

This debate was nothing like 1980, when challenger Ronald Reagan's performance gave him a major boost against then-President Jimmy Carter. Nor was it 1996, when incumbent Bill Clinton did so well in his first debate that he basically slammed the door on candidate Bob Dole.

This time, Sen. John Kerry probably did slightly better overall than President Bush, scoring perhaps a B+, while President Bush managed a B. That alone might be considered a win for Kerry, given that 52 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll expected Bush to perform better in the debates --compared with 39 percent for Kerry. (See Gallup poll Web siteexternal link)

Bush, for his part, was an active and somewhat effective counter-puncher, although his facial expressions did not put him in the most positive light.

Both candidates' performances, which may have been watched by more than 60 million people, probably will whet interest further in the closely watched campaign.

Kerry had three chief things he needed to do entering the debate. While he didn't nail any one, he did well to hit on parts of all three to establish himself as a bona fide contender.

The first goal: Be strong, clear and confident. Kerry spoke in plain, easily understood terms, vowing "I will hunt down and kill the terrorists" and that he had a "better plan" for homeland security, fighting the war on terror and handling the Iraq conflict.

But the Massachusetts senator didn't strongly counter the "flip-flopper" label, which Bush used frequently during the debate and Republicans have been reiterating all race long.

Kerry next needed to critique the president's foreign policy judgment. He did this by stressing that there was a right and a wrong way to handle international affairs, accusing Bush of taking the latter direction in Iraq and elsewhere.

The four-term senator challenged the president's diplomatic skill and decisions, particularly in regard to Iran and North Korea. But Bush counterpunched effectively.

And Kerry didn't always link his foe's "colossal error[s] of judgment," as he dubbed them, to future risks that might hit close to home -- such as how one of the president's decisions could heighten the chance of domestic terror attacks, spur the re-institution of the draft or produce immense bills that will sap funds from valuable domestic programs.

The last objective he needed to address was laying out, as the president's father might say, "the vision thing." Kerry did well to reference his Iraq plan and pitch his Web site address, as well as talking about a president's imperative to "get your kids home [from Iraq] and get the job done and win the peace."

But the senator did not summarize his vision neatly, nor did he use two or three anecdotes to drive home a clearer sense of how life might look under a President Kerry.

On a final note, Kerry neatly used foreign policy questions to subtly hit the president on domestic issues -- from "outsourcing," to the difficult task of capturing Osama bin Laden, to Afghan warlords and their forces, to parts of the $200 billion spent on Iraq being better off devoted to health care, construction or prescription drugs for seniors in the United States.

The president, meanwhile, gave a solid performance, showing that he was resolute, detailed and could counterpunch effectively. But like Kerry, Bush scratched out some hits but never notched a home run that might decisively win over voters.

The president certainly tried to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper, although he used different language -- much of the time, stressing the perils of a commander in chief sending "mixed messages." Bush was often very specific, citing Kerry's Senate record and issue details. But the senator did not get overwhelmed, countering the president to some degree.

Going in, the president also needed to address Iraq humbly, but confidently. Bush did this well, acknowledging some difficulties, but also noting progress. More important, he tried to explain the rationale for going to war and the post-invasion plan.

Ultimately, Bush chiefly focused on depicting himself as a confident wartime president. But as with the general pre-debate spin, the president may have been undermined by high expectations: In the latest Gallup poll, 67 percent of respondents said Bush could handle the responsibilities of commander in chief, in contrast to the 49 percent for Kerry. So it was tough for the president to make progress.

And, also like Kerry, Bush got in some domestic politicking by questioning the hefty price tag of the senator's plans and mentioning faith in his closing statement.

In summary, this generally good debate for both sides could perhaps produce muted poll movement. But the extent of swing, either way, won't be determined until after the "spin game" has been settled.

Indeed, in 2000, polls showed that voters who watched the debate judged Gore the winner, but voters who did not watch (the majority of Americans) judged Bush the victor.

Right or wrong, the media spin plays a hugely significant role in voters' perceptions and how they ultimately vote. Indeed, the actual course of history, it seems, is sometimes less important than how it is recorded and presented.

Yet the conventional wisdom that "spin" will decided this debate's verdict may not play out this time around. For one, more people were expected to watch the Thursday forum than tuned in during the 2000 race, so more can make up their own minds.

The rise of non-traditional news options -- such as Internet bloggers, liberal as well as conservative talk radio shows, comedic news programs such as "The Daily Show," and international commentary filtering back Stateside -- has further fragmented the media, making it harder to uniformly spin.

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