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Debates Within the Debate

Kerry vs. the Format, Bush vs. His Temper

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page A08

CORAL GABLES, Fla., Sept. 30 -- President Bush has thrown Sen. John F. Kerry's words back on him during nearly every speech of the campaign, but he rocked back in irritation during the first presidential debate Thursday night when the Massachusetts senator did the same thing to him.

Bush's aides knew that his temper was a potential vulnerability, and his debate coaching sessions included practice in not getting rattled. But the camera shutters started snapping as the president shot a look into the University of Miami Convocation Center when Kerry seized on Bush's refrain that "the enemy hit us" and to point out that was not Saddam Hussein.

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The campaigns' 32-page debate contract had been negotiated to make the encounter as antiseptic as possible. But from the first moment -- when Kerry answered his first question with an opening statement -- the candidates' personalities showed through the bonds of the format.

Kerry stood studiously behind his lectern, writing notes for much of the time that the president was talking. At several points, Bush could barely wait to jump in.

Bush's apparent annoyance at the idea of Kerry as the commander in chief was perhaps the debate's clearest emotion. Bush repeatedly prefaced his answers with "of course" and even used the phrase he uses to rebuke offending journalists: "Let me finish."

Bush confidante Karen Hughes said: "On his face, you could see his irritation at the senator's misrepresentations. . . . He was answering the senator with his face."

Toward the end, the moderator, PBS's Jim Lehrer, pointed out that Kerry "used the word 'truth' again" and asked whether that raised any hackles. "Oh, I'm a pretty calm guy," Bush said. "I don't take it personally."

At the end, Kerry was the most visibly pleased and the most effusive in thanking his opponent. Kerry walked up to the front of the stage, shaking two fists victoriously, as he summoned his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to the stage. Bush barely mentioned his opponent and went over for a hug from first lady Laura Bush.

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