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White House Insiders

Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; 11:00 AM

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry met on stage last night in the first of three presidential debates. Who came out ahead? Who did themselves the most harm? What were the best moments?

Washington Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank, who traveled with President Bush to cover the Florida debate and is now in Pennsylvania for Bush rally, took your questions and comments on Bush's debate performance, the current administration and the White House on Friday, Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. ET.


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White House Insiders is a show featuring Washington Post staff writers Mike Allen and Dana Milbank. Every two weeks, one or both will take your questions on the White House, the president and the Bush administration.

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.

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Dana Milbank: Good morning. The White House has just arrived late in Allentown Pennsylvania after an early morning flight from Miami and an hour-long security sweep. We're working on about 3 hours sleep because of last night's debate, so please forgive me if i gs;; sd;lrrr[ aone yhr jzbllbiard.
Where was I?
Anyway, let's talk about the debate, the scowl, and the (potentially altered) state of the race.

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Reedsburg, Wis.: Did either candidate do such an outstanding job last night that he would change someone's vote either way?

Dana Milbank: That's the most important question this morning. Right now the consensus is Kerry "won" the debate on style, in large part because of the president's petulance while Kerry was speaking. While that has prevented people from writing Kerry's obituary today, it'll take several days to see if the improvements in Kerry's favorability rating translate into gains against Bush in voter support.

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Arlington, Va.: After the president's lousy performance last night, is there any more talk from the White House about cancelling the next two debates?

Dana Milbank: Actually, Bush had a pretty strong performance; it's just that Kerry had a better performance, and Bush's obvious anger, seen on split screens across the nation, was unlikely to play well for him. But Bush delivered his points forcefully (if redundantly): Kerry wilts, wavers and flip flops.
I think there's no backing out of the next two debates; last night served to increase their importance.

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Washington, D.C.: Hiya Dana

The debate last night was a very good exchange and seemed to be a lot more than a "joint appearance" as Dan Rather has come to call them.
I thought Jim Lehrer did a great job controlling the exchange between the candidates last night. He let them have a little lee-way when it was appropriate, clarified positions when it was called for, and kept things moving in a civil and respectful tenor. How do you think the town hall format for the next debate helps or hurts either candidate? Thanks a lot!

Dana Milbank: This was really a pleasant surprise. For all the rules constraining spontaneity and interaction, there was plenty of both. Lehrer kept things lively by allowing a steady stream of 30 second followups, and the network cameras ignored the debate rules about not showing reaction shots. All in all, one of the most substantive debates we've seen in many years.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Mr. Milbank. Both camps are still spinning like mad, so you may not have been able yet to get any honest reaction from either of them. But do you have a sense for what the Bush team will want to change between now and the next debate?

The longer the debate went on last night, it seemed, the weaker and more fatigued Bush sounded -- he doesn't do many speeches or appearances of any kind that call for him to be "on" for that long. And he really dislikes having to respond to personal criticism; it shows. Is this fixable? Is it just a matter of Bush getting into game shape, as it were?

Dana Milbank: Actually, I had the opposite take: that Bush started weak but gained strength. Still, your overall point makes sense: Bush is not used to being challenged and confronted -- by the political opposition, by the press, even by his aides. That's partially by circumstance (the Democrats don't control either chamber of commerce) and partially by design (he has put the press conference on the endangered species list). In past debates, he has been successful by sticking to passages from his stump speech. But last night, with the extended focus on one issue-- foreign policy -- the lines became repetitious.

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Parkville, Md.: So what's the mood in the White House today? They must be nervous as heck, given President Bush's poor performance last night.

Dana Milbank: Reports last night were that top Bush aides were very quiet while watching the debate. In the post-debate press release put out this morning by the Bush campaign, the selection of media quotes, evidently the best the campaign could find, generally suggested that the event was a tie. Nobody on the Republican side seems to be asserting victory, which is unusual. That said, they still expect their guy to have a lead, albeit possibly a smaller one, when the dust settles.

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Ames, Iowa: I'm a blogger, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the innumerable Internet polls that were pounced on last night at the encouragement of top blogs and national parties. How much of an impact do they have, and what do they tell us?

Dana Milbank: The internet polls are of almost no use because they are easy to manipulate by the parties. In fact, the DNC sent an email to supporters with links to all the internet polls urging supporters to vote early and often. The instant polls by Gallup et al are of more value, but still suspect until confirmed by more extensive polling.

The DNC made a terrible mistake, I think, in forwarding hundreds of supporters' emails to reporters, flooding inboxes just as the journalists were on deadline. Some of my colleagues got nearly 700 emails, all with individuals' names but apparently sent by the DNC. This has produced much aggravation in the press corps.

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Washington, D.C.: am I the only one who is surprised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't come up at all? I think that conflict the source of all trouble we face. I thought it was strange it didn't come up, nor has any pundit declared it strange.

Dana Milbank: Each candidate made the ritual reference to our support for Israel, but neither went deeply into the conflict. I think this is because there is little disagreement on the subject. To the extent Kerry might soften Bush's unstinting support for Israel in the conflict, he's not going to say it during a campaign.

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Exeter, N.H.: According to my friends who watched PBS, which didn't use the split screen, the debate was mostly a tie. According to those who watched cable outlets featuring the split screen, Kerry won hands down. Could this be a similar moment to the 1960 debate where radio listeners awarded the debate to Nixon and TV viewers to Kennedy due to Nixon's haggard look? It sure seems as if Bush's team didn't have everything locked down for him, image or otherwise, last night.

Dana Milbank: Exactly right.
We who watched the debate from the filing center at the University of Miami had the "pool feed," which didn't have many reaction shots and no split screens. Most of us at first considered the debate a tie, and a colleague of mine (I won't name him) thought it a resounding Bush victory. But then the calls came in from editors and others who had seen the network coverage with the split screens.
Something similar happened in 2000, when those of us in the filing center couldn't hear Gore's famous sighs. That ultimately became the story of the debate, and those of us closest to the debate missed it all.
It's a good case for covering the debate from our living rooms.

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Rockville, Md.: Dana,

How can you state, "Actually, I had the opposite take: that Bush started weak but gained strength", Bush imploded last night before our eyes. Obviously you are biased to give Bush the benefit of the doubt? This sounds more in line with what Karl Rove said last night about Bush's strong performance. Perhaps you're spending too much time with the White House and need a little healthy dose of reality.

Dana Milbank: Darn, Karl, they found me out!

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Philadelphia, Pa.:
Speaking of accessibility, when is the last time John Kerry answered questions from the press?

Dana Milbank: Both candidates had press conferences last week, each after waiting about a month.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems like a lot of the (many) debate concessions that the Bush campaign got out of Kerry either didn't factor in (the temperature) or actually helped the senator (the two minute time limit probably kept Kerry focused). Plus, the biggest one, demanding the foreign policy debate be first, appears to have completely backfired. Do you think there's any second guessing or finger pointing going on right now in the Bush camp? And do you think there's any way possible that they might try and renegotiate the rules for the next two debates?

Dana Milbank: Before the debate started, there was a wonderful fracas that exploded in front of the smoothie bar off of spin ally. The Kerry side had suggested they do away with the lights on each candidate's podium, suggesting it looked like a game show. The Bush side prevailed, pointing out that Kerry had already agreed to the lights. And, as you point out, the lights seemed to help Kerry reduce his habitual long-windedness.

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New York, N.Y.: The first debate covered issues that have been considered by many to be Bush's "strong" issues: the war on terrorism and homeland security. Is it reasonable to expect that Bush will do worse in the two remaining debates?

Dana Milbank: Not necessarily. Bush is strong on terrorism but weak on Iraq in opinion polls. Likewise, he's generally weak on the economy but strong on taxes. The question is not so much the issue being debated -- domestic or foreign -- but whether Kerry had keep the focus on Bush's record and off of himself.

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Houston, Tex.: All right Dana, here is my thought and you can tell me what you think. Bush seems to be strongest when he is the challenger, but to me he seems to get flummoxed a lot more easily as the incumbent.

Dana Milbank: Let me tweak that slightly and say Bush is strongest when he's on the offensive. In this case, that means raising doubts about Kerry rather than defend his incumbency. This is not a matter of preference or style, however, as necessity. With such polarized and entrenched views of Bush, his best chance is not in trying to raise opinions of himself but in lowering opinions of Kerry, who even now inspires less passionate views.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dana,

I was doing a little opposition research by reading some conservative blogs this morning. One of them pounced on Kerry's "global test" comment and said it was a window into Kerry's soul. I agree that of all Kerry's remarks last night, this is one of the most likely to be harped on by the Bushies. To what extent do you think that comment will damage Kerry, at least among undecided voters? Or, does it not really give the GOP anything new to work with? Thanks.

Dana Milbank: Actually, here in Pennsylvania, Bush has already pounced on the "global test" comment. The problem with that one is it's a bit hard to explain in a soundbite, and therefore difficult for Bush to exploit. Kerry also contradicted himself, suggesting that the Iraq war was and was not a mistake. Bush also highlighted that this morning, yet that one, too, is fairly complex and difficult for the president to use. In Bush's post-debate remarks here in Allentown, he quickly returned to the Kerry vote against the $87 billion spending package for Iraq, and Kerry's allowance last night that he made a "mistake" in talking about it. Bush says the problem was not with the explanation but with the vote itself.

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Toronto, Canada: I do not think "winning" a debate is all that important. It is common knowledge that the president is not a very articulate person and debates have a tendency to amplify this characteristic. What is important is that the president was able to show that he is steadfast and will not change course.

Dana Milbank: Much as I enjoy getting the Canadian political analysis, Bush actually trounced Gore in the debates in 2000, and Ann Richards in 1994. Agreed that he showed he was steadfast and would not change course; the question is whether Kerry was able to convince people that ius not an asset.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Has Skull and Bones endorsed either candidate yet, or is that secret as well?

Dana Milbank:
They are doing a skull count.

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Dana Milbank: Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman just dropped by the press tent here in Allentown to set us straight on the debate:
"I think the format worked well."
"The president did a good job."
"I don't know that he was irritated."
"John Kerry went in with a credibility gap and came out with a credibility canyon."
"We look stronger, not weaker."

So there you have it. That's all for now. Thanks for tuning in

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