Bush Did Well, But Kerry Won

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., greets the crowd at a post debate rally at Tempe Beach Park in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004.
This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I'll go out on a sappy limb: the three debates between George Bush and John Kerry will go down as the most important, the most relevant and most well-done since televised debates began with the epic clashes of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

In a political culture acknowledged by both candidates tonight as polarized, in a long campaign acknowledged by all as especially scurrilous, these debates are triumph of argument over advertisement, substance over spin, and plain talk over propaganda.

The debates were also a triumph for John Kerry.

No matter what the outcome, this would not be a tight race if Kerry hadn't delivered three skilled debate performances. And a tight race it is.

You don't have to mark the winner to admit he won enough to get in the game.

I'm hesitant to deliver a verdict in tonight's smackdown because, as Bill Clinton said in his closing statement in the last debate of 1992, "the real winners of the debates were the American people."

Enough civics. I think Kerry won tonight. I think Bush was stronger than he was in the debates against Gore in 2000; I think he was sharper than he has been in almost all of his press conferences.

Debating is something that Kerry happens to be very, very good at. Bush's performance wasn't as steady as it was in the second debate. Debates gave Kerry his current momentum and I doubt Bush stopped it in Tempe.

The instant poll of undecided Americans conducted by CBS News tonight echoes my suspicion. It shows Kerry was the winner according to 39 percent, Bush by 25 percent. Some 36 percent of these undecided voters were again undecided and said it was a tie. What is it with these people?

A CNN/USATODAY/Gallup gave the night to Kerry by 52 to 39 percent.

But on one point, Kerry was disgraceful, and that is too weak a word. His mention of Cheney's daughter was gratuitous and heinous. I agree completely with Mrs. Cheney, who said tonight, "This is not a good man. This is coming from a mom. What a cheap and tawdry political trick."

Kerry may have won the night, but in my mind, he erased any sense that he deserved to win.

We pundits expected tonight's debate to reflect the larger strategic intentions of these two late-stage campaigns. The idea was for Bush to focus on inspiring his loyalists by reminding them of what a loathsome liberal Kerry is and for Kerry to woo centrists by portray himself as a...well, a centrist, a non-ideological pragmatist.

It played out that way, to a degree, but I don't think that was the central ethos of the evening. Tonight was just a long, clear argument.

Still, Bush worked hard to get in his licks. "There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said. "Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts." This was, as I guess they say in Texas, all sizzle and no steak. His zinger sort of just hung out there without well-articulated arguments backing them up. He reminded us 98 times that Kerry voted for 98 tax increases. Okay.

One problem with this line of assault: polls show that voters seem to trust Kerry more on domestic issues than they do Bush. In a CNN/USATODAY/Gallup poll taken this week, Bush had higher ratings on one issue: taxes. Kerry bested him on nine other issues: environment, stem cell research, health care, Medicare, the deficit, Social Security, education, the economy and abortion.

And tonight, Kerry reminded the audience of some very un-conservative items on the Bush resume: the deficits, international adventurism and the use of federal power to block the import of prescription medicine from Canada, for example.

At two points, including in his closing statement, Kerry said he didn't care if good "ideas" came from Democrats or Republicans. He wanted to blur the ideological lines Bush tried hard to draw. He dropped John McCain's name a few times, until the president rightly reminded Kerry that McCain was, after all, supporting Bush.

But Kerry's main weapon was a keen ability to load his answers with both meaty talk on the issues and an attack on Bush. The second question of the night was about the shortage of flu vaccine. Bush gave a fine answer, on point. But Kerry used it as an opening to attack. "The president has turned his back on the wellness of America, and there is no system and it's starting to fall apart," Kerry said, and then filled in the blanks with facts and figures.

Bush countered well, though. He said, "I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints."

Bush more blatantly ducked questions, notably on his bogus lip service to banning assault weapons, the minimum wage and whether he wants Roe v. Wade overturned. Kerry weaseled out of giving a straight answer on how he would pay for his health care plan.

But mostly, Kerry was on his game. He said he was "impressed" and "moved" by the speech Bush made to Congress after 9/11 and seemed to earnestly praise the president's handling of that crisis. Then he pulled a silky segue and got his stiletto twixt Bush's ribs: "I regret to say that the president who called himself a uniter, not a divider, is now presiding over the most divided America in the recent memory of our country, "he said. "I've never seen such ideological squabbles in the Congress of the United States."

That's either master debating or the kind of oily pirouette that people hate politicians for.

Bush certainly had his moments. I imagine that his answer to a question about the role of religion in his presidency played very well. The final answer was about what the candidates learned from their wives and Bush hit it out of the park, "To listen to them," he said, "And to stand up straight and not scowl."

Kerry had a pretty good comeback. He said he, Bush and moderator Bob Schieffer had all "married up." "And some would say, maybe me, more so than others," a joking reference to the woman who could become the first-ever billionaire first lady.

A CBS News poll earlier this week had a curious finding: the most important thing in deciding who to vote for is a candidates' stances on issues for 71 per cent of the people and the candidates' personal qualities for 19 percent.

I don't believe that. I think that character, trust and broad political philosophy win out. Measuring those amorphous qualities in a debate setting is a quixotic task. But the voters had an ample display from the candidates in the trio of great debates this year.

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