Bush Comes Back, But Kerry Holds His Ground

After the second and final presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan's chief of staff James A. Baker III was asked if it had been a good idea for the president to debate. "I will not tell you whether it was a good idea to have a debate," Baker said. "But I will tell you it was a good idea to have two."

Back then, Baker was underscoring the general consensus that Reagan had righted himself in the second debate after a shaky outing in the first. Truth was, Reagan was not much different in the second debate, rambling on aimlessly in his last answer. But he did have that one winning line about the age issue, vowing not to exploit Mondale's "youth and inexperience." Most people remembered little else.

In the second presidential debate of 2004, the performance of Baker's current candidate, President Bush, also represented an improvement. And Baker, who had negotiated the debate arrangements for the Republican side this fall, once again had cause to feel relieved.

President Bush had been so widely panned for his repetition, mugging and distracted demeanor in the first debate (Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla.) that he could scarcely help but improve in the second round. He blinked a lot, but he did not grimace or squint when his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, spoke. The president often gave defensive answers to questions, especially in the early going, but his body language was more confident and effective.

In fact, it was hard to see why anyone had hesitated to commit Mr. Bush to the town hall format. Yet it was widely reported that the Baker team wanted to trim the debate schedule to two and drop the town hall at Washington University in St. Louis entirely. Was that a negotiating ploy, along the lines of Brer Rabbit and the briar patch? An effort to lower expectations for this debate and then get a boost by exceeding them?

Perhaps, but the White House had reasons to worry. The 1992 version of the town hall had not been helpful to the first President Bush, who seemed uneasy on his chair and puzzled by some of the questions. Famously, he glanced more than once at his watch. The current President Bush also had suffered uneasy moments in the 2000 repeat of the town hall. And his campaign has become notorious for discouraging tough questions on the campaign trail.

It should also be said that the second debate began with huge pressure on the incumbent. Not only had he let down the side in Coral Gables, he had seen much (or all) of his polling lead disappear. Moreover, the week's news from Iraq was bad, the news about how we got into Iraq was worse, the country was getting caught short of flu vaccine and the last pre-election jobs report was pretty sour.

Still, now that the real pressure was finally on him, the president showed he thrives on it. The live audience interaction seemed to revive him and restore his stage presence.

Freed from the podium style of the first debate, Mr. Bush no longer seemed trapped and stiff. He all but leapt off his seat each time it was his turn to talk. Roaming the stage and addressing the audience members at close range, the president seemed to rediscover his rhythm. He got folksy and even feisty at times. He made a few jokes. He acted as if he knew someone out there liked him.

The president also felt sure enough of his aces to poke fun at one of John Kerry's complicated and earnest answers (on federal funding for abortion), saying, "Try to decipher that." This was a reprise of the contrast he drew in his debates with Al Gore in 2000 and with Ann Richards in Texas in 1994, both times to great effect.

It was not clear that the tactic worked as well in this debate. In part, this was due to the audience in the hall, which was not composed of partisans for either candidate. But it may well have helped Bush connect with elements of the TV audience disappointed with him in the first debate, including a lot of suddenly dyspeptic Republicans.

So if the president will generally win kudos for stepping up, will Kerry see his second debate performance graded down because he was not a clear winner this time? The answer will likely be driven by the polls, which determine so much of how we think about politics now. If Kerry's upward movement of early October ends abruptly or turns downward, his St. Louis outing will be subject to ever-more-critical reviews (much as Bush's Sept. 30 showing was).

But if Kerry holds his own in the polls as well as he did on stage with the president, this debate may be remembered more as a draw or as a close win for Kerry. Once again, the challenger managed to put Mr. Bush on the defensive on Iraq and other elements of foreign policy. That's the crucial element for him if he is to displace the man most people still think of as the more trustworthy commander in chief.

That sets up yet another potential irony. The president in St. Louis did better when the debate moved to domestic issues — the economy, the deficit, health care, stem cell research, abortion — than he had on national security. Is it possible that he will have his best night of the debates when the two men meet for the third and last time in Tempe, Ariz., Oct. 13? That's the night the agenda consists entirely of domestic policy, the arena where Kerry was once presumed to do best.

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