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Second Look

How Kerry won the debate by being himself.

It looks like I'm wrong about which candidate benefited from tonight's debate. And, boy, am I glad.

The commentators on television seem virtually unanimous. On CNN, Jeff Greenfield thinks Kerry looked "presidential"; on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough calls it "Kerry's best performance ever." But maybe the most telling verdict comes from the Fox News panel. When host Brit Hume asks his guests which candidate would gain in the polls after tonight, non-ideologue Ceci Connolly and centrist Morton Kondracke both say Kerry, while Bill Kristol refuses to register an opinion. (Rarely has silence spoken louder.) Meanwhile, the early surveys suggest viewers came to the same conclusion. In a snap poll by CNN/Gallup, 53 percent of respondents thought Kerry won while 37 percent thought Bush did. In ABC's poll it was 44 percent picking Kerry and 26 percent picking Bush, while CBS had it at 45 percent Kerry and 36 percent Bush.

But I know one political journalist who rendered a sharply different verdict: me. I cringed when Kerry's very first answer focused so heavily on the need to build international alliances--which, I assumed, sounded far too weak to most Americans, even though strong allies really are essential when waging a global war on terrorism. I winced when, in response to a question about his top priority as president, he said "nonproliferation" rather than "terrorism"--even though, truth be told, strong nonproliferation efforts probably are the key to keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. When Kerry started going on about the opium trade in Afghanistan, I wondered whether viewers had the vaguest clue what he meant--although it was entirely proper to take the Afghans' dependence on opium money as a tell-tale sign that the country is in deep trouble. And every time Bush attacked Kerry for "mixed messages" or "changing positions," I imagined a living room full of swing voters in Ohio nodding along, never mind that Bush has waffled just as much as Kerry.

I didn't even feel that great about the fact that Kerry clearly won on debater's points. Here was one typical exchange:

KERRY: The president just said the FBI changed its culture. We just read on the front pages of America's papers that there are over a hundred-thousand hours of tapes unlistened to. On one of those tapes may be the enemy being right the next time. And the test is not whether you're spending more money. The test is are you doing everything possible to make America safe. We didn't need that tax cut. America needed to be safe.

BUSH: Of course we're doing everything we can to protect America. I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect America. That's my job. I work with Director Mueller of the FBI He comes into my office when I'm in Washington every morning talking about how to protect us. There's a lot of really good people working hard to do so. It's hard work. But again I want to tell the American people: We're doing everything we can at home, but you better have a president who chases these terrorists down and brings them to justice before they hurt us again.

That's pretty much the way it went all night: Kerry citing specific evidence that Bush was not keeping America safe, Bush coming back with vague boasts about his good intentions and all the "hard work" being done, then changing the subject by suggesting he would pursue terrorists while Kerry would just let them roam free.

But then that's pretty much the way it's gone for this entire campaign. Over and over again, Kerry has tried to talk specifics; over and over again, Bush has responded by ignoring the questions, boasting about his mettle, and attacking Kerry's character. If voters craved a president who was willing to talk about substance, presumably Kerry would be ahead right now. (Come to think of it, if voters cared about this sort of thing, Al Gore would be president right now.) But for the last few weeks, Bush has been surging in the polls, even as the public grew more weary of the war in Iraq and more nervous about the prospect of new terrorist acts here. If the voters were still with Bush before tonight, why wouldn't they still be with him afterwards?

Well, maybe it's because tonight the voters got a chance to see Kerry the man as opposed to Kerry the caricature. Bush has won over a skeptical public by convincing it that Kerry simply isn't fit to serve. Between the attacks on Kerry's war record, the dissection of his statements, and the jokes about his windsurfing, the Bush campaign has reduced Kerry to an almost comically indecisive and weak figure that no sane voter could entrust with the nation's security. While those who follow politics know better, those who don't follow politics--a group presumably well-represented among "undecided" voters--have apparently found Bush's argument at least partially persuasive.

But on the debate stage last night, Kerry came off as he really is: a perfectly capable, if flawed, public official. By the night's end, he had projected intelligence and confidence, while conveying a sense of where he wants to take American foreign policy, thereby satisfying some of the basic doubts the Bush campaign has planted. Maybe Kerry did talk about alliances a little too much. But he also made it clear that he would defend America unilaterally if he had to--and that his interest in global cooperation stemmed from the very sensible proposition that it would ultimately make America safer. Maybe he did lapse into Senate speak now and then, but he also seemed to talk about specifics. And if the specifics weren't always entirely convincing (will allies really be so eager to share the burden of policing and rebuilding Iraq, given the chaos there?) the mere act of explaining them may have satisfied those undecided voters who hadn't heard such detail before and took that to mean Kerry was interested only in partisan carping.

Kerry's cool command of facts may also have prodded some of those voters to take a dimmer view of Bush--who sounded, as Newsweek's Howard Fineman so elegantly put it, like a man who had "thirty-five minutes of material for a ninety minute debate." Time and again, Bush retreated to the same old line of attack: that he would protect America because he had strong conviction, while Kerry would weaken America because he changes his positions. Whether or not the charge is true, by now it is simply getting dull. Maybe voters finally started noticing that Bush frequently had nothing else to say when it came to defending his record--because, in fact, that record is so hard to defend.

Just why voters would suddenly tire of Bush's shtick now, as opposed to weeks or months ago, remains a mystery to me. Nor can I explain why they'd suddenly crave intelligence in the president or suddenly get tired of Bush's condescending smirk (which, after all, has been there all along). But I'm not about to complain. If the pundits' early verdicts and the pollsters' early numbers hold up, it will be because Kerry showed undecided voters that he'd make a plausible commander-in-chief figure. At a time when the public is so dissatisfied with the country's direction, maybe that's enough to get Kerry a second look.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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