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Shift In Strategy

The goal last night for both candidates was to shift the focus to the other guy. And by that standard, Kerry won easily.

Here is the simplest way to figure out who won the debate last night: When you went to bed, were you thinking more about Bush or Kerry? I was concentrating on the president. I kept thinking about the way he was yelling through the first half of the debate. I couldn't get the picture of him during the cutaway shots out of my head--that blinking blank face, obviously trying hard not to make any of those funny expressions from the first debate. And as I dozed off, I couldn't believe that in the postdebate coverage that I monitored across the three main cable channels not a single commentator mentioned what was the most astonishing and revealing moment of the evening: when Bush broke the rules and angrily cut off Charlie Gibson to respond to Kerry's charge about Bush's unilateralism. Here's what it looks like in the transcript, which hardly does the moment justice:

KERRY: We're going to build alliances. We're not going to go unilaterally. We're not going to go alone like this president did.

GIBSON: Mr. President, let's extend for a minute--

BUSH: Let me just--I've got to answer this.

GIBSON: Exactly. And with Reservists being held on duty--


BUSH: Let me answer what he just said, about around the world.

GIBSON: Well, I want to get into the issue of the back-door draft--

BUSH: You tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone.

Bush was yelling during this exchange, and Gibson's effort to stop him was met with a look of contempt. The president simply ignored him and turned and addressed the audience member. What seemed like an aura of confidence about Bush morphed into bullying. It was the kind of moment that confirms one's suspicions about what Bush is like in private. No wonder aides are too meek to challenge him or bring the man bad news. No wonder the White House chief of staff is sometimes reduced to fetching Bush a hamburger.

Like Al Gore in 2000, I suspect Bush's stylistic mood swing from the first debate to the second debate--from irritable scowling to overcaffeinated screaming--will shape some of the postdebate coverage this weekend. By contrast, Kerry seemed almost purposefully understated. He didn't puff his chest and mosey around the stage like Bush did. He didn't suddenly adopt a folksy twang like Bush did. Kerry looked and sounded like he did in the first debate, albeit a little less articulate. Bush seemed to adopt a whole new persona and Kerry seemed happy to let it be the center of attention.

Why is this difference in style important? Because Bush can only win by making Kerry the center of attention. But the two debates have suddenly opened up a world of characterological questions about Bush that reporters will undoubtedly kick around in the next few days. The Bushies had a very specific goal last night of refocusing the campaign on Kerry, but their candidate didn't achieve it. The Bush campaign's mission is to make the days leading up to Wednesday's final debate in Tempe, Arizona, which will focus exclusively on domestic issues, about Kerry's Senate record. The press releases and postdebate talking points from the Bush campaign were all about Kerry's big-government Senate record. But there was a huge gap between the rhetoric from Bush's spinners and Bush's actual skill in making Kerry's votes a centerpiece of last night's debate. I noticed four main examples where Bush cited that record:

Now, he talks about Medicare. He's been in the United States Senate twenty years. Show me one accomplishment toward Medicare that he accomplished....

First, the National Journal named Senator Kennedy [sic] the most liberal senator of all....

He's just not credible when he talks about being fiscally conservative. He's just not credible. If you look at his record in the Senate, he voted to break the caps--the spending caps--over two-hundred times....

He's got a record. It's been there for twenty years. You can run, but you can't hide. He voted ninety-eight times to raise taxes....

These lines did not move the conversation decisively back to Kerry. Even commentators who thought Bush won the debate did not cite Bush's attacks on Kerry's record as the reason for victory. All the pre- and postdebate posturing by Bush's aides suggest this was their principal objective. Bush didn't achieve it. Kerry won the first debate by making Bush the subject, both stylistically (those silly faces) and substantively (Bush's failed Iraq policy). To win last night and change the momentum of the race, Bush had to both end the journalistic intrigue about his demeanor and shock voters with loads of new information about Kerry's unacceptably liberal Senate record. He failed on both accounts. He had to send voters to bed last night with John Kerry on their mind, and I don't think he did it. Kerry is two for two.

Ryan Lizza is the Washington Correspondent for The New Yorker.

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By Ryan Lizza