Close your eyes for a moment if you will and imagine an America where presidential campaigns start on Labor Day and end on the first Tuesday of November. The heart and soul of that fantasy race would be what you saw tonight: a serious, revealing, often fascinating face-to-face argument.
When we allow pre-primaries to begin in odd-numbered years, when we sanction primaries that last for months and are finished a half a year before Election Day, we get what we deserve: Swift Boats, infomercial conventions designed to torture, 527s, voters whipped into frustrated anger and voters turned off completely.
We saw an alternative to that tonight.
And it really isn't such a fantasy. Virtually every Western democracy is able to elect a head of state with campaigns that last less than ten weeks.
Given that this campaign, like all our modern ones, is a marathon of trivia, gaffes and side streets, this debate will likely not have immense consequence. But I thought it had several virtues.
was happily free of blatantly prefabricated zinger-lines, theme songs and slogans-to-be. I'm sure it was all very scripted and programmed and oft-used stump lines were abundant. But you could hear the candidates' natural voices and see their brains working under intense fire and pressure.
Probably 90 percent of the debate was spent on the great issue of the day. I don't think either candidate made the kind of jumbo gaffe that will eclipse all else. I also don't think either candidate hit anything out of the park. I do think the evening gave clear pictures of the men and their messages. That's not a small thing.
Whether it is something that can survive the post-game spin, I don't know.
The first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush was revealing on that score. "Overnight polls showed that voters narrowly awarded the debate to Gore," The Washington Post reported the day after the 2000 debate. "An NBC News survey found that those who watched the debate said Gore did a better job by 46 to 36 percent, while those in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll judged Gore superior by 48 to 41 percent."
But Gore's victory did not survive the spin room. It was determined that he sighed too much and had made a big fact gaffe. Within days he was deemed the clear loser and he invented a new persona to use in the second debate, which really killed him.
My sense of tonight's debate is that the instant polls will give a slight edge to Kerry, but that his advantage came on a cerebral, not emotional level and so will not greatly change minds. Both men were highly skilled, but Kerry seemed slightly more articulate and sophisticated, important qualities in a debate.
But Bush did have the more disciplined, repetitive laser focus on The Theme. Here's his best articulation of it:
"First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place. I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say 'Wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.' What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis? No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined."
The idea, repeated often, is that all Kerry's carping about the war is hypocritical because he voted for it, his continued criticism is unstatesmanlike and unpatriotic and it undermines the troops, our allies and the war of terror. "You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror," said the president.
Kerry had a clear, planned rebuttal that he used a couple times. "I've had one position, one consistent position [on Iraq]: That Saddam Hussein was a threat, there was a right way to disarm him and the wrong way, and the president chose the wrong way." But this was essentially a defensive maneuver. He didn't have a mega-theme du jour. Maybe that will play well; maybe not.
Kerry did provide one classic moment of irony. He began his closing statement by saying. "My fellow Americans, as I've said at the very beginning of this debate, both President Bush and I love this country very much. There's no doubt, I think, about that." No doubt, I think? Huh? Can't he give us a "no doubt" without an "I think?"
It's quite remarkable to note that the issue that dominated the night was wholly absent four years ago. In the three debates in 2000, the word "terrorism" was used once, by Gore.
It doesn't take a lot of spinning to realize how much things have changed.
Tonight, for the first time in the general election, the campaign reflected that change.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer