When George W. Bush and John Kerry squared off in Coral Gables, Florida, it was not only their first face-to-face encounter but also the voters' first chance to see the two men side by side. Instead of watching short clips of each man attacking the other, pitching to big crowds of enthusiastic supporters, viewers finally got to see the two up close in a neutral setting, performing without a net.
The results could be enormously important for the outcome of the campaign. The debates have been key events in five of the last seven presidential campaigns (dating back to 1976), and at a minimum they set the mood and momentum for the closing weeks.
In this, the first of three presidential face-offs, Sen. Kerry seemed more in control of his own train of thought than usual. That may have been a gift from the short-answer format and the vigilance of moderator Jim Lehrer.
President Bush, while as dutifully "on message" as ever, was uncharacteristically defensive in demeanor and tone. He stuck to the lines he wanted to have stick: Iraq was "hard work" and Kerry was guilty of sending "mixed messages" to our troops and allies. But shorn of the roaring audience response the president is used to, these lines did not resound as they normally do. And they did not improve with repetition.
This was not a classic debate in the sense of a true unbridled exchange. The rules the two campaigns agreed to ensured that what we heard was mostly what we've been hearing for the last several weeks on the stump. But in this context, in this format, the same lines somehow took on different meaning. And the comparison between the two men -- live and alone in the stage light -- was also quite distinct from what we've been seeing in the news.
It was as though an argument between two campaign organizations had suddenly become a confrontation between two men.
We heard two very different views of what reality is right now in Iraq. Kerry continued to insist that Mr. Bush's misguided policies in Iraq have created chaos and higher American casualties and higher danger at home. He said the president was fixated on Iraq and diverted from bigger terrorist threats -- including Osama bin Laden. Although not a get-out-of-Iraq-now candidate, Kerry is now emphasizing that he has a plan to get Americans out soon. The president, he says, offers just four words: More of the same.
For his part, Mr. Bush drove home the laser-like focus on Kerry's shadings and gradations -- a critique that has dominated the campaign. He said that Kerry's past statements on Iraq are contradictory and incoherent and that electing such a man will put Americans in greater peril.
Polls showed the incumbent with a solid lead (although still in single digits in most polls) going into the first debate. But they also showed something else that poses a more difficult challenge to Kerry.
The conundrum is this: While more voters agree with Kerry's assessment of the Iraq situation right now, they still prefer Mr. Bush because of his attributes of "leadership." Even though more voters think Iraq has not been worth the cost in American lives and dollars, they are not ready to dismiss the president as punishment unless they have sufficient confidence in (and personal preference for) the alternative.
In fact, the president beats Kerry on a whole host of personal measurements: Who would be better in a crisis? Who has better judgment? And most important of all: Whom do you trust to protect America from terrorism?
Bill Benoit, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, says that historically Republicans base their attacks in a presidential campaign on character, while Democrats base theirs more on policy. That has certainly been happening this year. Another observation being borne out so far is former President Clinton's warning that voters prefer someone who is strong and wrong to someone who is weak and right.
So even though more voters buy Kerry's view of reality in Iraq, they still trust the president more to handle the situation there.
Kerry may have taken a first step toward addressing that daunting problem in Coral Gables. But he will have to take more steps in the subsequent debates in St. Louis (Oct. 8) and Tempe (Oct. 13) if he's going to get where he wants to go.