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Winner Take All

Kerry won the third debate the same way he won the first two: by foiling Bush's attempts to label him.

Forget all the one-liners and policy details for a moment. Looking back over the three debates, what is the biggest change in the presidential race since Bush and Kerry took the stage in Miami on September 30? Without a doubt it is the fact that Bush's year-long effort to define John Kerry has been undermined. Kerry won the first debate because most Americans found out he wasn't the guy they had been told about in Bush's ads. Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who has been one of the most intellectually honest conservatives commenting on this election, noted earlier today in an e-mail that "despite confidently declaring 'victory' [in defining Kerry as a flip-flopper] [Bush's advisers] have found themselves right back where they started and apparently never effectively completed the job."

In the second debate, and more forcefully in last night's contest, the Bushies moved to plan B--paint Kerry as a big-spending liberal. It didn't work. Here is the problem with this ancient GOP line of attack: Being defined as "liberal" in and of itself means little to voters. Calling Kerry a liberal is meaningless unless Bush spells out why that threatens the Republic. After the debate Bob Shrum, a college debate champion himself and the man who ran Kerry's debate prep team, showed up in Spin Alley for the first time. He was clearly taking a bit of a victory lap (if Kerry wins there will be a delicious battle between the Clintonites and Shrum over who was responsible for righting the ship--the new communications team and its decision to emphasize Iraq, or Shrum's brilliant debate training camp). "Let's just say I felt good about coming out tonight," he told me. Shrum made an important point about the efficacy of Bush's liberal strategy. Republicans used this tactic when Shrum ran John Edwards's Senate race in North Carolina in 1998, and it failed. "Voters said, 'We want to know what you're talking about. Don't just throw labels out,'" Shrum told me.

In his missive before the debate, Fabrizio made the same point: "It will be interesting tonight to see if the President can move beyond just labeling Kerry as a Liberal (which more than 2/3's of voters see him as already) and successfully define Kerry's liberalism as dangerous to America." That was the test Bush had to pass last night to stop Kerry's momentum and be declared the winner. Bush failed that test, and Kerry won his third debate.

Reading over the transcript, it's clear that there are two main reasons that Bush simply couldn't make the big government argument stick last night. On health care, Bush's caricature of Kerry's plan as Hillarycare doesn't withstand scrutiny, and Kerry's explanation and defense of the plan largely defanged Bush's attack. But the most important reason that Bush couldn't paint a Scarlet "L" on Kerry is that Bush has lost his credibility on fiscal discipline. Every time Bush attacked Kerry for being a big-spending liberal, Kerry parried with details of the fiscal recklessness of the last four years. "This president has never once vetoed one bill--the first president in a hundred years not to do that," Kerry said in response to Bob Schieffer's early question about federal spending. In response, Bush went after Kerry's Senate record:

"Well, his rhetoric doesn't match his record. He's been a Senator for twenty years. He voted to increase taxes ninety-eight times. When they tried to reduce taxes he voted against that one hundred and twenty-seven times. He talks about being a fiscal conservative, or fiscally sound, but he voted over--he voted two hundred and seventy-seven times to waive the budget caps, which would have cost the taxpayers 4.2 trillion dollars. He talks about PAYGO--I'll tell you what PAYGO means when you're a senator from Massachusetts, when you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy. PAYGO means you pay and he goes ahead and spends.

He's proposed 2.2 trillion dollars of new spending, and yet the so-called tax on the rich, which is also a tax on many small business owners in America, raises six-hundred million dollars by our account--billion--eight-hundred billion dollars by his account. There is a tax gap. And guess who usually ends up filling the tax gap? The middle class."

That was Bush's most detailed case about why Kerry is an unacceptable liberal. Kerry returned fire with one of the better lines of the night: "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country." Later, Kerry said that Bush has run up the largest deficits in American history and has proposed $3 trillion in new spending when one includes the transition costs of his Social Security plan, an issue that Shrum later insisted was a "political time bomb" for Bush and one that Kerry would be talking a lot about in the next three weeks. At the very least, Kerry fought Bush to a draw on the issue of taxes and spending last night. And if Bush's new "liberal" strategy is the heart of his closing argument in the final days of this campaign, then a draw is not good enough for him.

Finally, a note about style. Just as we have seen Bush lurch from one line of attack (he's a flip-flopper!) to another (he's a liberal!) in these debates, we've also seen him adopt three different personas. Last night, at least in the first half of the debate, he had a strange perma-grin affixed to his face which he disconcertingly flashed for several seconds whenever he finished an answer. This is petty, but it probably didn't help that there was a foamy white speck of spittle in the corner of Bush's mouth for most of the debate.

And then there were those two painful moments when Bush attempted humor. "Gosh, I sure hope it's not the administration," he said awkwardly when asked about the cause of rising health-care costs. Later, after Kerry backed up an assertion with news sources, Bush attempted a joke about the forged document scandal at CBS that fell flat. "In all due respect," he said, "I'm not sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about--oh, never mind." When he uses corny lines like these on the campaign trail in front of partisan crowds the president always get lots of sympathetic guffaws, but they fell flat amid the silence of the debate hall.

These nit-picky points about style probably won't matter that much. Like most of the details of the debates, they will soon be forgotten. But if voters, especially those with reservations about both Bush and Kerry, take away one lesson from the last two weeks, it is probably this: The John Kerry of the debates was not the same John Kerry Bush told everyone about.

Ryan Lizza is the Washington Correspondent for The New Yorker.

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By Ryan Lizza