With last night's insta-polls indicating that President Bush lost his third debate in a row with Senator John F. Kerry -- and with the instant replays today inevitably focusing on Bush's most easily illustrated gaffe yet -- it would be hard to argue that the White House has regained the momentum in this presidential race.
Meanwhile, the Internet-spawned controversy over the bulge on Bush's back has spread to just about every other medium there is, including the office water cooler.
And while Bush's demeanor last night is widely considered a dramatic improvement from the previous two debates, watch for talk today about saliva and blinking.
Here's the full debate transcript, annotated with Washington Post and washingtonpost.com fact-checking.
A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters who watched the debate named Kerry the winner 39-25 percent. But 36 percent of those polled called it a tie.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of registered voters who watched the debate found Kerry judged the winner 52-39. That was nearly as clear a victory as he scored after the first debate.
"By double-digit margins, those surveyed gave Kerry higher marks than Bush for expressing himself clearly, understanding issues and caring about the needs of people like them. Kerry was more believable, they said. On only one of seven characteristics did Bush come out ahead: likeability."
Here are the full results.
An ABC News poll of registered voters who watched the debate found Kerry winning by a tiny 42-41 margin -- but as anchor Peter Jennings acknowledged, the survey reached more Republicans than Democrats. Among independents in that poll, Kerry won 52-43.
Many commentators said Bush did better in the last two debates than he did in the first.
The Bin Laden Problem
One of Bush's obvious goals last night was to convince voters that Kerry exaggerates, makes things up and can't be trusted to do what he says.
But the first example of what Bush mockingly seized upon as a Kerry exaggeration blew up in his face.
Kerry charged: "Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, 'Where is Osama bin Laden?' He said, 'I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned.' "
Bush shot back: "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."
But Kerry wasn't exaggerating at all.
As I wrote two months ago in a column titled The Unnamed Enemy, Bush generally treats bin Laden a lot like those wizards in the Harry Potter books treat He Who Must Not Be Named.
As of August, the last time Bush had spoken protractedly about bin Laden was at a March 2003 news conference. Bush was asked then by Kelly Wallace of CNN why he so rarely mentioned bin Laden, and whether bin Laden was, in fact, dead or alive.
Bush's answer: "Well, deep in my heart, I know the man is on the run if he's alive at all. Who knows if he's hiding in some cave or not? We haven't heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission.
"Terror is bigger than one person. And he's just -- he's a person who's now been marginalized. His network is -- his host government has been destroyed. He's the ultimate parasite who found weakness, exploited it, and met his match. He is -- as I've mentioned in my speeches, I do mention the fact that this is a fellow who is willing to commit youngsters to their death, and he himself tries to hide -- if, in fact, he's hiding at all.
"So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. . . . I truly am not that concerned about him."
Last night, Kerry partisans on the Internet pounced on Bush's gaffe, and it wasn't long before the DNC was distributing Bush's earlier comments on video.
David S. Broder writes in The Washington Post: "Neutral observers, including some who gave Bush a narrow edge, predicted Kerry would maintain the momentum that has brought him from an underdog's position at the start of September to rough parity with the incumbent. . . .
"Throughout the confrontation, Bush was alert to opportunities to label Kerry as a reckless spender of taxpayer dollars -- or, as he put it once, a politician who dwells on 'the left bank of the mainstream' along with his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
"Meanwhile, Kerry rarely passed up a chance to depict Bush as someone with a shaky grasp on reality -- whether it was the fragile conditions in Iraq or the pressures working-class families are feeling in this economy -- and to tee up his argument for change."
Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times that the debates "were a rough passage for Mr. Bush, who saw his September lead over Mr. Kerry slip away as the Democratic nominee established himself as a plausible presidential alternative. In a crucible where voters measure the self-confidence, authority and steadiness of the candidates, Mr. Kerry delivered a consistent set of assertive, collected performances. Mr. Bush appeared in three guises: impatient, even rattled at times during the first debate, angry and aggressive in the second, sunny and optimistic last night."
Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Based on the initial viewer reactions, this encounter seems unlikely to dent the conclusion that the debates have done far more good for Kerry than for Bush, mostly by helping the senator ameliorate some of the negative impressions that voters developed about him amid intense attacks from Bush and his allies.
"Also, Kerry succeeded in standing next to the president for three debates without suffering a major gaffe or appearing overmatched."
Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Democrat John F. Kerry came away from last night's final presidential debate having staked his claim for the White House with aggressiveness in the first encounter, likability in the second, and command of policy in the third, seeming to grow in credibility as a prospective president with each performance."
Jacob M. Schlesinger, Greg Hitt and John Harwood write in the Wall Street Journal: "Widely considered to have lost the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, and seen to have at best won a draw in the second last week, Mr. Bush was looking to recreate the aura of ridicule around Mr. Kerry that he had established through the summer. . . .
"But Mr. Kerry gave as good as he got."
Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Each candidate clearly entered the debate with a couple of loaded lines that they were ready to fire off at an appropriate moment. Neither man's effort was particularly successful, but the president's almost-forced efforts to caricature Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal to the left of Sen. Ted Kennedy appeared to fall decidedly flat, except to the hard-core partisans who can never hear enough of that kind of talk."
Writes Tackett: "Incumbents who don't win debates, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, haven't fared well on Election Day. There is a presumption in the electorate that presidents are supposed to be able to perform on television under pressure."
Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Bush used language unusually slashing for an incumbent president -- especially one whose 47% approval rating makes it perilous for him to do anything that might make him seem less appealing and, well, presidential. He mocked Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal who would raise voters' taxes and turn their health care over to government bureaucrats.
"Kerry depicted Bush as a tool of wealthy people and powerful corporate interests. He blamed the president for job losses and derided him as out of touch with most Americans' daily lives and problems."
Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "In a recent private meeting with supporters, President Bush reportedly predicted that, in this race, he would 'keep my foot on John Kerry's throat.' Last night, he was true to his word. But it didn't appear that Kerry was suffering much pain."
Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's policies are under assault, his re-election threatened, so he sought Wednesday night to make the campaign a referendum on his rival.
"He cast Democratic Sen. John Kerry as out of the mainstream, a liberal whose rhetoric doesn't match his record. Vote against Kerry, the vulnerable incumbent seemed to say, even if you're not too crazy about me."
Salon is featuring a photo today that would appear to show Vanessa Kerry staring at Bush's bulge last night.
The bulge in question is what -- again -- looks like a rectangular object on Bush's back, under his suit. Here's the original photo.
Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post last weekend that Bush's aides have "tried to laugh off the controversy."
Dave Lindorff wrote in Salon yesterday that "speculation continues to run wild" about the bulge, and that the White House's half-hearted explanations don't seem to wash.
A new poll from the Economist finds that of those who had seen a picture of the bulge, 49 percent said they think it's caused by "a radio receiver so that his team could communicate with him during the debate;" 18 percent think it's a fold in the suit; 13 percent something else; 20 percent don't know.
Tim Grieve writes in Salon that Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman was repeatedly asked about the bulge yesterday, and finally said: "The president is an alien. You heard it here first. The president is an alien. That's your quote of the day. He has been getting information from Mars. The shock of the debate will be the president's alien past will be exposed, which is why that box is there."
The problem with this story, as preposterous as it may sound to some, is that it risks perpetuating an image of Bush as a puppet. I think a lot of us are waiting for a definitive answer.
Jeff Zeleny and Rick Pearson write in the Chicago Tribune: "As Bush spoke, television screens showed a bubble of saliva on the right side of his mouth, which some Republican advisers feared was a distraction to viewers."
James Bennet writes in the New York Times that Bush's "smile was askew for about half the debate, marred by a glistening light dot at the right corner of his mouth. Viewers could be forgiven for losing track of his answers and imagining Laura Bush in the front row in frantic semaphore, wiping furiously at the corner of her own mouth."
White House Briefing reader Dave Chudzik asks: "Was the constant blinking by Bush meant to send Morse code, distract Kerry or hypnotize the viewers?
"I challenged my 7 year old to count his blinks when Kerry provides his first answer. Before getting an intense headache, we counted 126, 114, 101, and 147!"
Chudzik may be "ex-ag-ger-rating" but all that Bush blinking has caught several observers' attention, and not just last night.
A press release from Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, quotes John Stern, a professor emeritus of psychology and pioneer of blinking research, as saying: "People watching the debates might be able to form a judgment over which candidate they prefer, in part by watching their eyes." Stern, for instance, says there is solid evidence that people blink frequently at points in time when they momentarily stop taking in and processing information.
The TV Reviews
Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "An essentially dignified and thoughtful performance by Sen. John Kerry, contrasted with an oddly giggly turn by President Bush, combined to give the last debate of the presidential campaign to the challenger last night, but very narrowly.
"Bush seems to have been taken apart and put back together again after each debate, reassembled according to estimates of how he'd done. Last night it looked as though his handlers had told him to smile, smile, smile, especially when Kerry was trying to make points, points, points."
Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times that, for Bush, "at times, the strain of correcting the angry, defensive impression of the first two debates wore through. On a question about health care costs, he stopped midway through an antimedia joke -- 'In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about' -- with the words, 'oh, never mind.' And then he laughed, a 'heh heh heh' that was not echoed in the room.
"That laugh, repeated several times through the debate, was a kind of Rorschach test for viewers: either the nervous cackle of a student not fully prepared, or the confident skepticism of an ordinary guy wary of artifice and verbal flourish."
Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times watched television commentators and "livebloggers" last night.
" 'BUSH WINS,' Michael Graham declared on National Review Online at 9:36. 'Thirty minutes in and Bush is actually winning. For real.' . . .
"Just after 10 p.m., the Democratic Web blogger Ann Althouse wrote . . . : 'A glob of foam forms on the right side of his mouth! Yikes! That's really going to lose the women's vote.' "
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann scored the debate in real time: "Rounds won . . . Kerry 12, Bush 5, Even 4. Net points . . . Kerry 18, Bush 3," he concluded.
Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen, in The Washington Post, lead their fact-checking story with two statements about taxes. "Kerry's statement was correct but was out of context, while Bush was stretching the truth," they write.
Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press about "a refusal on both sides to back off questionable statements that have practically become classics through repetition."
Matt Stearns writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Bush stumbled on a question not raised before, about the U.S. flu vaccine shortage. He said the United States 'relied on a company out of England' for the flu vaccine. Chiron is a California-based company with a factory in England. Bush implied U.S. authorities shut the factory, saying, 'We took the right action and didn't allow contaminated medicine into our country,' when English authorities shut the Chiron plant."
John Riley writes in Newsday: "Bush began by accusing Kerry of having called terrorism a 'nuisance' and comparing it to 'prostitution and illegal gambling.' . . .
"Kerry did say, in a recent magazine interview, that he hoped someday terrorism would be controlled to the degree that it was only a 'nuisance' -- but former Republican White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has used the same word, and neither suggested it should be taken lightly."
David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "President Bush mischaracterized who received the tax cuts that have been the centerpiece of his legislative record, and Senator John Kerry exaggerated when he said he was proposing clear ways to raise revenue to pay for his spending proposals."
Here are more fact-checking stories from CNN, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun.
About the Congressional Black Caucus
Richard Simon writes in the Los Angeles Times that, as Bush pointedly noted, Kerry was wrong to charge that the president had never met with the Congressional Black Caucus.
But Simon writes of their February meeting: "The caucus members got to see Bush only after showing up at the White House gate and refusing to leave until the president agreed to meet with them, according to the group's leader. . . .
"The caucus did meet with Bush 11 days after he was inaugurated -- at which time the president told them, 'I hope you come back, and I'll certainly be inviting,' according to the White House transcript."
Mary Cheney Watch
Michael Laris writes in The Washington Post: "Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney, accused John F. Kerry on Wednesday night of 'a cheap and tawdry political trick' and said he 'is not a good man' after he brought up their daughter's homosexuality at the final presidential debate."
Bush's Ups and Downs
Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Bush was perhaps most passionate and articulate when he talked about faith and family. "
By contrast, "On several occasions when Kerry attacked Bush, including over the administration's failure to support a big increase in the minimum wage, Bush turned the discussion to education and his No Child Left Behind Act."
Another awkward moment for Bush:
Asked who bears responsibility for the increase in health care costs over the past four years, he said: "Gosh, I sure hope it's not the administration." He chuckled alone.
'Of Course' Watch
In last Friday's column, I encouraged you to perk up your ears every time President Bush says "of course," because in adversarial settings Bush seems to use that phrase whenever he's about to say something that supporters might find obvious -- but that his critics might consider a whopper.
Here's every instance of "of course" from last night:
"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."
"Of course we're meeting our obligation to our veterans, and the veterans know that."
Regarding his Social Security plans: "And we're of course going to have to consider the costs."
And here are the instances from last Friday:
"Of course, we're going to find Osama bin Laden. We've already 75 percent of his people. And we're on the hunt for him."
"Of course, I listen to our generals. That's what a president does."
"[O]f course we've been involved with Iran. . . . Of course, we're paying attention to these. It's a great question about Iran."
"And of course he's going to raise your taxes."
Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "Over the last four years, the Bush administration and Vice President Dick Cheney's office have backed a series of measures favoring a drilling technique developed by Halliburton Co., Cheney's former employer."
Valerie Plame Watch
Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper was held in contempt of court a second time yesterday for refusing to reveal confidential source information sought by a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA employee's identity."
Late Night Humor
From the "Late Show with David Letterman", via the Associated Press:
Top Ten President Bush Explanations For The Bulge In His Jacket
10. "It's connected to an earpiece so Cheney can feed me answers -- crap, I wasn't supposed to say that!"
9. "It's a device that shocks me every time I mispronounce a word."
8. "Just a bunch of intelligence memos I haven't gotten around to reading yet."
7. "Mmm, delicious Muenster cheese."
6. "John Kerry initially voted for the bulge in my jacket, then voted against it."
5. "I'll tell you exactly what it is -- it's a clear sign this economy is moving again."
4. "Halliburton is drilling my back for oil."
3. "Oh, like you've never cheated in a presidential debate!"
2. "Accidentally took some of Governer Schwarzenegger's (ste)'roids."
1. "If Kerry's gonna look like a horse, then I'm gonna look like a camel."