Time Magazine didn't make Karl Rove very happy today regarding the debate last night:
The second presidential debate was a battle between two candidates: one peevish, shaky and floundering; one aggressive, active and emotional. I speak, of course, of President George W. Bush... and President George W. Bush.You know what I found interesting? Magically today, after Bush was scraping bottom at just 20% of nearly a half million respondents saying Bush "won" the debate (like it's a poker hand or a lottery drawing), Bush was ever so suddenly neck and neck with Kerry. Somebody got out the call to vote vote vote.
In this uneven fight, second-debate Bush defeated first-debate Bush. This, of course, is the way Bush and his handlers want the media to spin this debate—"Bush improved, therefore Bush won" —since, after all, it was a fight the President was bound to win. All he had to do was avoid kicking over his stool, shouting "No fair!" and storming off stage. (In fact, on the cable networks after the debate, Bush's surrogates happily denigrated his performance in the first debate, by way of saying how decisively they believed he won the second.)
And let's be honest—for the media, it's the most tempting angle, because it allows analysts to draw a firm conclusion without being called biased. Not to mention, it guarantees they not give Kerry a 2-0 lead going into the last debate. (Much like the TV networks during the baseball playoffs, the political media has an interest in making sure there's a decisive rubber match.)
Bush defeating himself, though, is not the same as Bush defeating Senator John Kerry. The second debate—a "town hall," with questions offered by undecided voters in St. Louis, Mo.—was a format that was supposed to play more to Bush's strengths in connecting to people. The fact that the candidates were not tethered to the podium eliminated the President's problem, from debate one, of hunching at the podium while he spoke; he had an audience to smile and wink at; and simply being able to move around the stage made him appear less physically besieged.
It seemed pretty clear that Bush was specifically prepared to avoid the sour signals he gave off at the last debate. He didn't scowl. He didn't take several seconds to begin answering a question. When the camera cut away to him during Kerry's attacks, rather than grimacing, he wore—not a smile exactly, but a ruler-drawn diagonal slash across his face, the kind of sideways expression Charlie Brown would wear when Lucy would walk up to the pitcher's mound to tell him something annoying. (You could practically see the thought bubble over his head: "Must... not... frown...")
But although Bush's face conveyed a studied unflappability, it sometimes seemed that his voice didn't get the memo. Especially in the first half, on foreign policy, he practically bellowed his answers; when Kerry ended a critique of the Iraq war by saying that, if Bush had chosen differently, "Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead," Bush's head popped up, and he seemed like he was about to ask his taller challenger to take this outside. At one point, moderator Charles Gibson tried to ask a follow-up when Bush wanted to rebut Kerry, and Bush simply steamrollered over him, barking his answer until poor Charlie gave up. Earlier, Gibson had promised to hold the candidates to the rules "forcefully but politely." You're one for two, Charlie.
I can only home Dems will be that effective on November 2nd.