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Debate Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Managing Editor
Friday, October 1, 2004; 12:00 PM

Thursday night President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry faced off in their first of three presidential debates. Who came out ahead? How did the strict format influence the event? Were the candidate's accurate in their statements?

Kaiser will be online Friday, Oct. 1, at Noon ET to take your questions, comments and analysis on the debate, the candidates and the 2004 election.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Robert G. Kaiser: Welcome to a morning-after discussion of the first debate. Your discussant--me--is releived today on several counts, and I will confess them at once: I'm most relieved that we had a good debate, a debate of real substance, which I hope and believe gave voters some real meat to chew on.

And as a newsman, I'm relieved that we appear to have a real race on our hands this morning. A Democratic acquaintance complained to me yesterday that his is the only party on Earth that is inclined toward "pre-mortems," a commentary on the handwringing about his fellow Dems before last night that Kerry had already lost the election. As you'll see from today's questions, that handwring is history, at least for the moment.

A final introductory observation: I have tried to read a vast array of comments and interpretations of the debate this morning, and I am still looking for a newspaper editorial or talking head who declared that Bush won the debate. This represents a rare degree of unanimity among the chattering and commenting classes, in my experience. I have no idea how significant this is in terms of the election outcome, but as of this morning, there is a powerful consensus that John Kerry beat the president last night.

We have an hour and I will try to post and/or respond to several dozen of your good questions and observations.


Pasadena, Calif.: The Washington Post fact checking article was excellant. I appreciate the effort of this extra step beyond, "he said, he said." I thought the debate was excellant and gave a very clear portrayal of the candidates and their positions. Although criticized by many as style commentary, I thought the opportunity for a deeper look into the candidates temperments importantly informed the contest. Bush tries hard to insulate himself from any criticism (friendly crowds, limited press access) and it showed. I think back to the Bay of Pigs--a huge presidential misstep--Kennedy acknowledged the mistake, fired some advisors and learned a lot. He became a better President and the Cuban missle crisis showed it. It is a very big deal that Bush won't acknowledge, perhaps can't even see error. For me, that was his greatest failure in this debate.

washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com's Debate Referee

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. Here's a link to the fact-checking article, as you call it.


Baton Rouge, La.: Having listened to the entire debate, I thought that President Bush was extremely repetitive in his answers. Do you think this will be taken up in the after-debate coverage and discussion, or will it simply be lost to those who hear only short sound bites?

Robert G. Kaiser: Bush's repetition has already been cited in many accounts of the debate that I have seen. He obviously came into the debate determined to tell people that the war on terror was "hard work," and that Kerry was sending "mixed messages." and so on. I'm sure most viewers picked up on that. I have no idea what they concluded from it, however.


Austin, Tex.: Kerry redeemed himself last night. Even the National Review admitted he won. However, Kerry's performance in this campaign is not consistent i.e. even. He really "slacked off" after that acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, and suffered as a result. The next debate is on domestic issues, which are Kerry's strength. Do you see a danger of complacency setting in, and more importantly, low expectations being set for Bush in the next debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment, which I agree with -- the first part, that is. I won't try to predict the future. Kerry's friends, and some of his rivals (like Sen. Hagel, the Nebraska Republican) have been telling us all year that Kerry is a strong finisher--this is his reputation from his Senate campaigns. He is now in the home stretch, obviously. Whether he can finish strongly this time is the big question, obviously.


Frederick, Md.: Although I support Kerry and am glad that he "won" the debate, it seems as though he did not directly answer or defend against Bush's attack of being a flip flopper, and I thought that was a critical piece missing from his debate. Is this a strategy on Kerry's part, or is he just overlooking this crucial piece that from what I see, has considerable merit and importance with undecided voters?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment. My hunch is that Kerry would say that he DID answer the charge, at least regarding Iraq: toward the end he laid out his view: Saddam was a threat, the president did not authority from Congress to meet the threat, but then the way Bush proceeded was wrong on virtually every count. I agree with you that he could have done this better. Why was he afraid to use the term flip flopper, for example? i don't know, of course.


Keene, N.H.: Although I came to the debate as a Bush leaner--I figured I would keep an open mind, given that I live in a state that could have decided the 2000 election. By the end, I moved firmly to Kerry's camp--he just seemed more like a president. I guess in the end, Bush seemed like a challenger and after 4 years--that was not what I was expecting.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a chance that the constant repetition of the flip-flop charges is starting to wear out? I for one am so over it that it is turning into a caricature of the Bush campaign. Plus, as is the case with the WMDs before the war, just by repeating something incessantly, it doesn't make it more true.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another view of the flip flop issue....


Alexandria, Va.: I have a comment regarding the candidates' demeanor during the debates. I have read in the Post how Bush scowled while Kerry was speaking. Am I the only one who noticed that Kerry rolled his eyes, smirked and otherwise appeared disrespectful when the President was speaking?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, let's see if others saw what you saw...


Stamford, Conn.: With a clear consensus that Kerry won this debate and it focusing on Bush's strongest issue (foreign policy), and with the next debate wide open on topics and in a town hall format, is it more beneficial for Bush to drop out or take his chances that he will look even worse the next time?

Robert G. Kaiser: No


Charles Town, W.Va.: Mr. Kaiser,

It's alwasy a pleasure to hear your insights into the issues. I'm posting early because I'll be in a meeting during the chat.

Did you happen to notice that George Bush got the Sept. 11 date wrong? In response to something Kerry had said Bush said, "That's a pre-September 10th mentality. I would have thought by now every American above the age of five would have September 11 seared on their brains. How is it possible that the President did not get this date right?

I suspect that if he had more than two IQ points to rub together, we would have seen a spark of intelligence by now.

Thanks for your time!

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, dismissing Bush as a nincompoop (is that the way you spell it?) seems to be a senseless and, for his opponents, foolish enterprise. You disagree with him; you don't like his style of simplifying tough and complicated issues; you disagree with his division of the world into black and white, good and evil. I can see all of that, but how does it add up to making him dumb? I firmly believe he is a shrewd, disciplined player, competent and intelligent enough to deal with difficult matters. You'd think American liberals might learn not to dismiss their opponents (Reagan, this president) as dopes, given how effective they have been against Democratic candidates.


Mies, Switzerland: Mine is simply a comment, to say that I thought that John Kerry was far, far better and more effective in the debate that Pres. Bush. He had facts at his fingertips, he was completely coherent and specific in his answers to each question, and he made clear that he has the brains, determination and skills to lead the country. By contrast, the president had very little substance in his comments, was ineffective in rebutting the factual points made by Kerry, and frankly was tiresome in his repetition about "mixed messages", particularly after Kerry's very clear and coherent explanations about his own position on the war, Saddam Hussein, and the REAL security priorities facing our country.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.


Houston, Tex.: I thought George W. did Great!

I'm voting for him.

Robert G. Kaiser: and thanks to you, too.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Is there any fresh poll data suggesting a "bounce" for Kerry this morning?

Robert G. Kaiser: Too soon, too soon. How I wish Americans could learn some patience! We know from history that it takes a few days for a debate to settle into the national consciousness, so to speak.


Jupiter, Fla.: I think Bush won the debate with his candor, commitment and grasp of the issues. George W. is qualified and committed to the Presidency. He encourages foreign nations to join us in the war on terrorism and he stands up for the United States in the face the United Nations.

I think the world is a safer place having Saddam Hussein and many of the terrorism kingpins in prison and having free elections in Iraq will help spread peace and democracy throughout the region and perhaps the world.

Kerry looked rehearsed, defensive and smug. He seemed to spin his "flip-flops" on war and funding as having a consistent point of view.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Not sure what you mean about standing up "for the United States in the face of the United Nations," however.


Tucson, Ariz.: Kerry was superb. The man is intelligent, articulate, and honest--everything Bush is not. Kerry is the man to lead our country honorably out of the morass in Iraq and, as an Independent, he has my vote.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.


Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: I appreciate the 'fact-checking' that is starting to happening more frequently in the Post as we get close to the election.

One item that appeared in the Post's fact check article by Kessler and Pincus this dealt with Osama bin Laden's escape from Afghanistan.

Kerry's charge that this was a foul-up that should have and could have been avoided seems to be supported by the facts.

Articles from 2002 are in general agreement that: Osama got away. Most articles indicate the the warlords were either unable, unwilling or complicit in the escape. The US command was ineffective and relied on proxies to capture bin Laden.

My questions: Why is this being identified as a reach on Kerry's part? If this is going to be a 'Kerry stretched the truth item', doesn't the Post owe it to its readers to give a full report?

Robert G. Kaiser: There's a link above to this story. I thought Kessler and Pincus handled it fine; there was never any hard proof that Osama was on the scene. yes, some officials thought he was, but given the dismal official record on his whereabouts, they didn't persuade me.


Dunedin, Fla.: It was very obvious from the beginning that Kerry reflected a stong sense of assurance and inner strength which is expected of the leader of a country. His calm, insightful remarks and replies showed the viewers his superior intelligence and vision. Bush's constant grasping for words, inarticulate use of "downhome" phrases and trite expressions was reflective of a far less mature, less secure , less knowledgeable person

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The early consensus is that President Bush may not have been a disaster but that he didn't deliver a knock-out blow to John Kerry. Let's say that for some reason swing voters found Bush more likeable and the polls don't move. The press will say that Bush did well enough to stay ahead. Will that make the next two debates almost irrelevant since apparently most people watch the first debate and nothing will have changed?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yours is a flawed analysis on several points, I think. The polls will move; the race will tighten. I'll bet you a nickel on that. And i think we are about to witness a familiar phenomenon: the media will feel (as I confessed to feeling above) the satisfying sense that we have a real race, whose outcome probably can't be forseen today. The media is not ideological in its coverage, in my view, though I know ideologues on left and right disagree. But the media does love the horserace (a failing, yes, but this is the society that invented NFL football, after all), and its natural tendency is to support the race, make it seem close, etc. That's what is going to happen now, in my opinion.

I could be wrong!


Kansas City, Mo.: Do you think the GOP will have any luck overturning the public's view that Kerry won the debate as they did in 2000?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess you're refering to the first Gore-Bush debate? As I said at the outset of today's discussion, I can't recall a case when the judgments of the commentating classes were so unanimous as they are this morning, and I don't expect that can be altered by spin.

But I could be wrong!


Ann Arbor, Mich.: May I make one comment about your answer to my question. I think the media bears some responsibility for the "horse-race" mentality of reporting lastest gaffes, poll results, debate fashions, etc...
I thought maybe some polling organization would have been on the phones last night querying a segment of the population trying to assess their reactions. Thats all.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I have made my confession about the horse race, above.


Raleigh, N.C.: About Bush's repetitiveness...it's a problem if you watched 90 minutes. Which means the media are going to notice it and comment on it. But it's probably a plus if you watched 30 minutes, because you got his talking points.

Is there any research from the past about how much of a debate viewers watch? About how much undecided voters watch?

Robert G. Kaiser: Nielsen will tell us, later today probably, how many watched, and how much the audience shrank half hour by halfhour, or maybe with even more precision. I expect my colleague Lisa DeMoraes will be reporting on that tomorrow.


Detroit, Mich.: I think Kerry looked very Presidential last night while Bush looked out of his league. Kerry was calm, always had a quick and well thought out answer to any difficult question. Bush often paused prior to a question he really wasn't sure of knowing the answer, looked uncomfortable, tired, and annoyed, his temper may have gotten the best of him. Kerry was given a chance to say that Bush had lied to the American public and he didn't. Bush had a chance to say that with a Kerry presidency there'd be more terror, but he didn't. When the two candidates were given the direct opportunity to bash their opponent based on Jim's questions- they didn't, which was actually nice to see. I think those questions actually caught both candidates a little off guard. Overall, a very interesting debate. It was nice to see Kerry finally shine!

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment.


San Antonio, Tex.: During last night's first presidential debate, I was reminded much of the Lincoln/Douglas contest, including the obvious height differential bewteen Lincoln/Douglas and Kerry/Bush.

During the campaign, Stephen Douglas used an enormous amount of repetition from one debate/campaign event to another. Douglas used the same speech, with minor modifications, throughout the campaign (much like Bush), to the point where Lincoln remarked that the senator's "successive speeches are substantially one and the same," (much like Bush's repeated sloganeering last night).

Lincoln's speeches were more varied, fluid and flexible (much like Kerry's rhetoric last night). Many issues were important in 1857, but Illinois voters felt the major concern of the country was slavery, much like today's voters are focused in Iraq.

Questions: How much did Bush's repetitions of the same stock responses hurt him last night? Did the sloganeering take away from a fuller explanation of the issues? It seems to me that both Bush and Kerry last night did a good job at formulating their basic differences on foreign policy, but don't you think that what's at stake is not just the choice between two candidates or political parties, but a choice between two fundamentally opposed views of the meaning of the American experience vis-a-vis foreign policy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the good comment. Of course, Lincoln lost to Douglas that year--but it wasn't a direct popular election, was it?

Yes, I do think this can bedescribed as a contest between two fundamentally different views of the American place in the world. I wish Lehrer had pressed that aspect harder; he let the debate stay stuck on Iraq for a long time, I thought.


Silver Spring, Md.: What can we expect from Edwards/Cheney on Tuesday? I have been rather disappointed in Edwards, although Cheney is downright dispicable. How does Cheney fare in debates? One would assume that considering Edwards's vocation he would be very good in debates? Could this race be over by midnight next Friday night?

Robert G. Kaiser: This race cannot end before Nov. 2, no matter how hard you may wish it!

I am really looking rorward to the VP debate. Edwards is remarkably agile and quick on his feet. Cheney is a great debater; he cleaned Lieberman's clock in 2000. It should be great fun.


Swann Street, Washington, D.C.: Am I the only one who is surprised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't come up at all? I consider that conflict the source of all trouble we face. I thought it was strange it didn't come up in the debate, nor in any post-debate coverage, neither on TV nor in the print press.

Robert G. Kaiser: We could spend the restof the hour discussing the undiscussed issues. A quick list of topics, off the top of my head, that I would have liked to hear more about:

China's emergence as a world power
The U.S.'s unprecedentedly low standing in world opinion
The future of Russia and our relations with it
Our commitment to the Saudi Royal family
Our undemocratic allies, upon whom we rely so heavily (Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, etc etc)
The future of NATO
The decision to withdraw troops from Korea.

And that really is off the top of my head. The point being, this was not really a foreign policy debate; it was an Iraq debate.


Austin, Tex.: I know a lot of ink has been spilled about how polarized the country is, red states, blue states, etc. But some of these comments make me wonder again. It seems that we're just not all inhabiting the same version of reality. And there seem to be two different ideas, at some fundamental level, of just what sort of country we're trying to be.

Does this worry you? Or do you think five years from now, with a different president and (hopefully) a less chaotic situation in the world, people will calm down?

Robert G. Kaiser: good question, which I can't answer. I am troubled by the phenomenon of parralel realities that you describe. It offends my orderly reporter's mind when disputing politicians offer wildely different versions of reality, both of which simply cannot be accurate. I consider it one of The Washington Post's most important jobs to try to present a Real Reality, if you will. But, to steal a line from President Bush, it's a hard job.


Florida: I was flipping in and out of the debate because UConn was winning a football game on ESPN last night, but as I did so, I heard repeated themes from the President (as you've pointed out). I suspect that his strategy was to take a "Top 40 radio" approach; no matter when you tuned in, you were going to hear about Kerry's mixed messages and flip-flops. I'm sure that Rove & Co. analyzed viewing patterns minute-by-minute from previous debates and realized that not as many people would sit through 90 minutes as would tune in at some point.

I support Bush, but I have to respect Kerry's smoothness--the problem is that he's almost a little too smooth, and that skilled speaking style allows him to contradict himself (can't deny that) within a topic while seeming confident.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Loudoun, Va.: Most information I have seen states that Kerry has won this round of debating. What perplexes me is the fact that I still do not know what he plans to do to gather a coalition for the war in Iraq. I believe the United Nations is impotent as it has proved unwilling to backup its sanctions with force (in Iraq, North Korea, etc). Why would I want to vote for Kerry who says that the U.N. is the answer when I simply cannot fathom relying on them for our nations security?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment.


Alexandria, Va.: Has there been any obvious sense of anger from the Bush campaign towards the media? After all, if the networks had agreed to the debate rules that there be no reaction shots, and viewers hadn't seen Bush looking bored, angry, and basically annoyed at having to be there, we might well be talking about a Bush victory right now.

Robert G. Kaiser: Haven't seen any anger. Those rules are beyond silly--read them if you want a good laugh. As the newtorks pointed out, THEY never signed the rules, thank goodness.


Gaithersburg, Md.: All those rules (except the unenforced camera rule) seemed to work to Kerry's advantage. To what extent do you believe the maxim "be careful what you wish for?" applies to the debate negotiator for President Bush?

To what extent do you expect the Bush campaign to blame camera angles and the split screen for Bush's apparent poor showing?

Robert G. Kaiser: another comment on the same point. I don't think it's easy to blame the messenger on this one. I did have the sense that the rules really helped Kerry last night. he simly had to focus on brief, coherent answers. I note this morning that according to a newspaper in New York whose name just floated out of my head, Bush actually spoke longer last night than kerry did, cumulatively.


Columbia, Md.: I was uncomfortably leaning towards supporting Kerry before the debate but now I'm solidly in his camp.

That said, I found Bush much more compelling than I did four years ago.

If the Democrat's have anything to celebrate this morning, it is simply that now many more people will be voting "for" Kerry instead of "against" Bush.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks. this is important for Kerry, if you are right. Our colleague Rich Morin, our polling director, wrote revealingly the other day about the "enthusiasm gap" between Bush's staunch, loyal supporters and kerry's lukewarm ones. If the debate changes that, it is good news for the Dems.


Arlington, Va.: Does the debate from last night raise the stakes for the VP debate? Do you think more people will turn out to watch it than in the past? Kerry showed his eloquence last night as an experience debater and lawyer. Edwards, also an amazing trial lawyer is well versed and quick on his feet. Since Dick Cheney creamed Lieberman 4 years ago, are people even giving Edwards a chance or are they trying to play the same low expectations game that Bush/Kerry camps did for this first debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: I am allowing myself, at least for a few hours, the hope that last night's debate will build interest and audience for all three remaining ones. Wouldn't it be nice if the county really got inolved in these last five weeks, and paid close attention? Is that a pipe dream? Perhaps.


Charlotte, N.C.: I have read where some have said that Bush gave a strong performance last night, or that Kerry only came away with a slight victory. How can this be true. If it were true the republicans would have no problem spinning it as a big win today... or at least as a win.

So far all I have heard or read from conservatives is that it was a tie at best. Some are conceding that Kerry won. The Bush camp seems to be admitting defeat by reporting that he may have been "drained" from a day of surveying hurricane damage in Florida.

Sounds like a big Kerry win to me. The polls seem to show that as well.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment.


Council Bluffs, Iowa: As someone who has been on the fence, I watched the debates carefully, and was iimpressed with Kerry: he seemed to know what he was talking about, his approach just makes sense. While Bush repeated the same (tired) cliche about flip-flopping, he didn't seem to offer much more than that. The more I see of the President, the more I question whether he has any real understanding of what's going on at home and abroad.

Anyways, my question: the media seems to have reported this as "close" -- but there's no way that this was close. You'd have to be completely blind (or partisan) to think that Bush's ideas were better. Do you think that some media outlets called it close because they don't want to be perceived as favoring the left?

Robert G. Kaiser: I actually haven't seen many media comments that the debate was "close." What do you have in mind? As I said at the outset, I have never seen such a clear consensus about who won and who lost. At the same time, as Dan Balz pointed out in his good analysis to which I hope we can link here, Bush wasn't a disaster by any means; he scored points, reassured his faithful, and handled some things very well.


Junction City, Calif.: Although Kerry seems to have appeared more confident and "presidential" over the length of the debate, the soundbites that feed many voters their information may not communicate that well. Do you think the press is doing a good job of presenting the story?

Robert G. Kaiser: Ouch. Citizens can't be bothered to watch the debate themselves, so we must police the soundbite industry to make sure it represents the entire 90 minutes accurately.


washingtonpost.com: Battle Lines on Foreign Policy Clearly Drawn (Post, Oct. 1)


Reaction Shots: I support the President, but I suspect that some of his perceived annoyance was based on the circumstances of the debate. Unlike a candidate who has been through a tough round of primaries, any sitting President is somewhat insulated from criticism. It's got to be tough to keep a straight face when you're ten feet away from someone calling you a failure. I don't remember reaction shots during the 92, 96, or 84 debates--do you?

Robert G. Kaiser: yes I do, they have always been part of the deal.

Thanks for making this important point. Kerry has been slammed around for a year by his Democratic rivals, then by Bush and Cheney and Zell Miller et al. I think Bush may have shown, in the debate, the effects of living in a protected cocoon as president. Presidents are told constantly how wise and wonderful they are. People are constantly kissing their...ring. I had the sense that last night was the first reminder Bush had had in nearly four years of how sharp the elbows can be in the marketplace of ideas.

Just a theory, but I like your version, and mine.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Robert... Do you ever wonder whether the spinmeisters of the campaigns try to submit questions to you while you are performing these great online Q&As? The comment of one questioner on whether anyone noticed Kerry's "eye rolling" is what makes me ask.

To the contrary, I was impressed with the very subtle job Kerry did of being the anti-Gore in terms of his facial reactions. There wasn't a single note of condescension that I could pick up, and I thought it represented great preparation.

Second, my sense is that Bush prepared for a much more aggressive, desperate Kerry attack, and the fact that Kerry hung back with a more statesmanlike demeanor caught him off guard.

Many thanks for the feedback.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Of course we don't know who you, or any questioner, is. I know we get partisans who are deeply committed in these discussions; I've never had evidence that a certifiable spinmeister has taken part. But I'm pleased that we offer here the opportunity to Everyman to be her own Spinmeister for a day! Keep 'em coming.


Nashville, Tenn.: I thought it was a tie, and Kerry needed a knock-out. However, I did not watch the split screen version. If Bush's scowling can somehow be worked into a picture of a president who would bite the head off any advisor proposing a change in tactics in Iraq, then it might grow to favor Kerry. I believe it was Woodward's book that talked about Bush hating "hand-wringing" even if done privately inside the White House. So the seed for this idea has already been planted with the public. Unfortunately none of Kerry's spin doctors seemed to be watering it.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.


Arlington, Va.: I just wanted to thank you for reminding us (Democrats) that President Bush and his supporters are not stupid. Their success certainly should belie this attitude. I think that one of the biggest problems that Democrats have had over the last few decades has been to been a belief that they are inherently more intelligent than are Republicans. I believe that this smugness has caused a tremendous alienation among swing voters and what used to be Democrat bastions of support among working class voters. The sooner Democrats shed themselves of this delusion of superiority, the sooner the party will again become the party of the people.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks


Detroit, Mich.: Are there any statistics that demonstrate that "undecided voters" actually use the presidential debates as a means to make their decision, and if so, what are those statistics?

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't think this can be reduced to numbers.


Arlington, Va.: I'm still an undecided voter. I thought both men did well. Bush repeated his talking points too often and ocassionally was hesitant in speaking and Kerry's answers were sometimes convoluted and unclear, but nothing stood out in the "debate" to make me decide for one or the other.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.


College Park, Md.: Thank for taking my questions/comment. There was a strange exchange last night concerning Iran. It went as follows (with some editorializing):

Bush: "…we've already sanctioned Iran. We can't sanction them any more. There are sanctions in place."

-As if to say that the his administration is doing all it can do.]

Kerry: "The United States put the Sanctions on alone, and that's what I'm talking about."

-Continuing his argument that Bush is not employing the diplomacy necessary to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran's mitts.]

Bush: "It was not my administration that put the sanctions on Iran. That happened long before I arrived in Washington, D.C."

-So, is he admitting that his administration has done nothing during the past 3 years to stop Iranian nuclear proliferation? Is he, again, passing the buck (see September 11, prison abuse, faulty intelligence, the economy, etc.)? Are we now to believe that it is some previous administration's fault that U.S. foreign policy over the past 3 years has been a dismayingly destructive disaster? Or was he at first trying to take credit for the sanctions, only to then shift the blame for their failure? All of Bush's failures are, according to him, pre-made, nonexistent, or inherited. We have yet to hear him admit to any mistakes. In the 1990s, Jeff Tweedy wrote the lyric "All my daydreams are disasters." For Bush, it seems his disasters are his daydreams.]

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting


San Antonio, Tex.: What was Lehrer's greatest strength/weakness last night, in your opinion? Bush's? Kerry's?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said earlier, I wish Lehrer had broadened the discussion, though I certainly understand his instinct that Iraq, where Americans are committed to an expensive enterprise that has already taken more than a thousand of our countrymen's lives, deserved the lion's share of attention.

By my standards Lehrer is too much of a southern gentleman in these situations. Which is why he moderates them, not I! I was in Britain for two weeks until Thursday, and on Thursday morning I heard a wonderful, tough interview of Tony Blair on BBC radio which reminded me of how British and American broadcast cultures have grown apart. The Brits love raking their pols over the coals on camera, or on microphone. And I enjoy watching or listening to that, because I think it's a kind of accountability journalism that is important. But we rarely get it here.

I link here to my inimitable colleague Tom Shales, who is a better judge than I, by far, of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.

washingtonpost.com: Blue vs. Red: The Debate Wasn't Exactly a Tie (Post, Oct. 1)


washingtonpost.com: Blue vs. Red: The Debate Wasn't Exactly a Tie (Post, Oct. 1) Robert G. Kaiser: here's shales


Greenbelt, Md.: According to one line of argument, apparently long embraced by Kerry, this election is a referendum on Bush. Much of the success of the Bush campaign in recent months has resulted from reversing that dynamic by making the campaign a referendum on Kerry. To what extent did the dynamic change again last last night?

Robert G. Kaiser: well, that's the big question. stay tuned.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Weren't Bush's facial expressions last night the non-verbal equivalent of Gore's sighs in the last Presidential debates? Isn't that what cost Gore one of the debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess that's in the eye of the beholder, no?


Arlington, Va.: Robert, thank you so much for all of your online chats. The point was brought up earlier -- people are now voting not only 'against Bush' but FOR Kerry. When Bush finished his closing remark I couldn't tell if he was done or not. Had he planned his closing remark before? If so, it sounded more like a defense of his record than a closing statement.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure Bush rehearsed his closing remarks. He and Kerry may have rhearsed more than one, to be ready for various scenarios.


Washington, D.C.: I find all the talk about "two realities" and an unprecedented level of division in the country curious. After all, in a debate focused on the war, didn't both those guys pretty much take the same position (i.e., they supported it and think winning is a must?) Aren't they both pretty much free-traders? You can go down the list here. Leaving aside empty campaign promises about health insurance and such, don't you have to get down to the sham (in my humble opinion) issues like abortion and gay marriage before you come to any substantive differences?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the reply. I disagree with it. I'm not sure this is the right forum to try to explain my view, which is complicated. A couple of thoughts: Bush's sense of how America should conduct itself in the world seems to me fundamentally different than kerry's. If he thinks he is leadin ga genuine coalition in Iraq, for example, then his definition and mine of "coalition" are very different. I think Kerry comes out of a long American tradition, for years a bipartisan tradition, of internationalism of a kind exemplified by President Bush's father, and abandoned by President Bush. I think the people around Bush who joined him in redefining the American world role did so for serious, considered reasons--I don't mean to dismiss them, though I do disagree with them, as I have written more than once since Sept. 11.


USA: We could learn a few things from the British political system.

We need Question Time!

Robert G. Kaiser: right on. But of course, question time is part and parcel of a parliamentary system of government, which I do not think we need in this country. We do need an aggressive press corps, and presidents who are willing to confront news conferences once a week.


Yonkers, N.Y.: Who invented this concept of "seeming presidential" and can we find them and have them thrashed? Do you think a Lincoln -- high pitched voice, manic depressive -- and FDR -- wheelchair -- and George Washington -- pompous, humorless and self-important -- would last through a single primary using this bizarre criteria we've allowed the media to foist on us?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good point. I'm glad you snuck that "we" into your last sentence.


Baltimore, Md.: I am befuddled as to how, even when conceding that Kerry did "win" this debate, the general consensus seems to be that it was a slight or marginal victory. Bush was blown out of the water last night. Joe Scarborough himself said last night "As far as the debate goes, I don't see how anybody could look at this debate and not score this a very clear win on points for John Kerry." What else -- realistically -- could Kerry have done last night?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Leesburg, Va.: In 2000, the VP debate was amazingly gentile. Lieberman and Cheney seemed to be engaged more in a discussion than a debate. It was interesting, if not lively.

Now, with Cheney much more aggressive on the campaign trail and Edwards wanting to position himself as more of an optimist -- which style do you expect to see more in evidence on Tuesday?

Robert G. Kaiser: Lieberman was Mr. Nice in 2000. Edwards will not mimick his approach.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I would just like to make a comment that I feel that our democracy was made more secure last night because we were finally able to have a discussion between the candidates rather than attack ads to base our opinions on. I just hope that a large percentage of the voters actually watched! Let the true democracy and the strenghth of our system shine through! I was impressed that even with the polarization, that the results were not spun. Is that your assessment?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes it is. thanks.


Jeffersonville, Pa.: Seems to me a lot of people have gotten the Democrat's email and have decided to bombard these chats. The truth is the Kerry did come across as presidential, but as time goes on his "decided" victory will look a lot less "decided" because of the substance. I really think the Allawi as a puppet hurt him.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Let me challenge you a little. Why is Alawi not a puppet? Who chose him to lead Iraq? What legitimacy does he enjoy?

I think we're kidding ourselves if we believe that Iraq is already on the road to meaningful democracy and a stable, legitimate government.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Okay, Kerry sounded better in style and delivery -- but once you read the transcript, you notice contradictions or not truly giving substantive answers (similar to his convention address which was highly praised by the same pundits now commenting on the debates). Any chance results change? Just because pundits say it doesn't make it so.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Of course you're right, voters, not pundits, make the most important decisions.


Pennsylvania Furnace, Pa.: I thought Kerry showed last night that he's the right person at the right place at the right time to be President.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The Post had an opinion piece today on the debate that mentioned Bush's "We've climbed the mountain, and I see a Valley of Peace" or thereabouts quote as being eloquent. It did not mention that this appears biblical, and is obviously a sign to the Christian fundamentalist sector of society. Did you take the remark as a bone being thrown to the Bible belt?

Robert G. Kaiser: Bone, shmone, it was a religious reference, obviously. Bush slips them into most of his speeches, and his evangelical supporters love it.


Robert G. Kaiser: We ate up that hour pretty quickly! Thanks to all for taking part. We'll be online after each of the debates over the next busy fortnight. During these fourteen days I suspect the race will take on a different quality again.

For what it's worth (and you get it for free!), my opinion is the election is still too close to predict. As of yesterday Bush was clearly in a better position than Kerry, but not so much better that the outcome was settled. It isn't settled yet.

That's my favorite sort of prediction, because it can never be proven wrong!

So on to the next lap. See you next time.


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