Well, no one can say it wasn't a serious debate.

It was, in fact, a relentlessly serious debate--Iraq, Iran, Sudan, North Korea--in which both Bush and Kerry, both wearing American flag lapel pins, tried mightily to project an image of strength.

Bush's message, repeated over and over: Kerry keeps changing positions and can't be trusted as commander in chief.

Kerry's message, repeated again and again: Bush made a huge mistake in Iraq and won't acknowledge reality.

There were no canned zingers or withering one-liners. On the one hand, Kerry didn't fundamentally change the campaign conversation. On the other hand, he showed he could go toe to toe with the incumbent. (How's that for even-handedness?)

The buzz in the pressroom was that Kerry turned in the stronger performance and may have revived his campaign, but reporters were surprised by the 10- and 15-point margins by which the networks' insta-polls gave the contest to Kerry. Keep in mind, though, that these early snapshots may not mean much, as Gore found out four years ago.

I've scoured the Major Media coverage and haven't found anyone who says Bush won last night. Tim Russert's take on "Today" is typical: "The president was more tentative and more on the defensive than we've seen him in previous debates. John Kerry was the John Kerry that Democrats hoped they were nominating back in Iowa, someone who could give a forceful presentation."

In the morning papers--gee, I just saw those guys a few hours ago, banging away in the University of Miami pressroom--it's all about how well the senator did.

Ron Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-assess1oct01,1,1255665.story?coll=la-home-headlines:

"President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry increased the odds that the voters' verdict on the war in Iraq will decide the November election, as they deepened their disagreement over the conflict during a sharp but civil debate Thursday night. Overall, the two men raised few new arguments. But they offered starkly different visions of how America should pursue its goals in the world, how a president should lead and, most emphatically, whether the ongoing war in Iraq had enhanced or diminished American security. . . .

"The president sometimes seemed exasperated and even angry as Kerry pressed his case against him; at one point, Bush even apparently sighed in frustration, a distant echo of the behavior that hurt Vice President Al Gore in his first debate against Bush in 2000."

Todd Purdum in the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/01/politics/campaign/01assess.html?oref=login&hp:

"In the end, it was a real debate: sharp, scrappy and defining, just what the nation seemed to be yearning for during a wartime election campaign. Again and again, President Bush defended his conduct of the war in Iraq, insisting, 'there must be certainty from the U.S. president.' Over and over, Senator John Kerry asserted that Mr. Bush had led the country into a debacle in Iraq and it was time for a 'fresh start, new credibility' in foreign affairs.

"From the very first question last night, Mr. Kerry was determined to show, as he put it, that 'I can make America safer than President Bush has made us.' He was cool, respectful, rational in offering a detailed brief that Mr. Bush had embarked on a diversion from the war on Al Qaeda and global terror by invading Iraq, and his answers never exceeded the time limits.

"By the time the debate ended, Mr. Kerry appeared to have accomplished his primary goal for the evening: establishing himself as a plausible commander in chief."

That sentence sums up what the media types are saying.

Michael Tackett in the Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-040930assess,1,4276240.story?coll=chi-news-hed:

"Whether John Kerry won the debate with President Bush Thursday night is an open question that voters will decide, but he almost certainly won a chance for a second look.

"And that he quite clearly needed. Some Republicans had said the Bush campaign wanted to switch the issue of foreign affairs from the third debate to the first one to give the president the chance to effectively close out the race by undercutting Kerry on shifting positions on the war in Iraq. Instead, Kerry painted a contrast with the president over the war and challenged an aspect of Bush's character--a sense of moral certitude--that could be the president's greatest electoral liability, especially among women and independent voters."

Peter Canellos in the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/debates/articles/2004/10/01/senator_scores_with_confidence/:

"After two months spent reacting to attacks on his own record, John Kerry last night succeeded in turning the roving spotlight of the 2004 presidential campaign onto President Bush's Iraq policies, blaming Bush for allowing the United States to bear '90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the costs.'

"Bush, following the same effective strategy of his past debates, stuck to a few core themes, such as his argument that Kerry's attacks on the war undermine American troops and insult US allies.

"But for most of the first hour, during which Iraq was the prime focus, Bush's repetition seemed insistent rather than firm, and his body language -- sighing, clenching his teeth, rolling his eyes -- suggested a man on the defensive."

Dan Balz in The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63962-2004Sep30.html plays it more down the middle:

"Iraq dominated the first debate between President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry here on Thursday night, and rarely have the differences between the two men -- and the choices for the country -- been stated so clearly and with such passion.

"Bush and Kerry differed on almost every aspect of the war in Iraq and on other major foreign policy issues such as North Korea and Iran. They disagreed over whether former president Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat to the United States at the time Bush took the country to war there. They disagreed on whether it was right or wrong to go to war as Bush did. They differed on whether the president has a plan to secure the peace. And they parted company on whether the certitude Bush has displayed as president has advanced U.S. security or weakened it. . . .

"Both accomplished many of the goals their own advisers had set out in the days before the debate and likely reinforced the strong backing each already enjoys among their most committed supporters."

Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/9806491.htm is of the Kerry-dodged-a-bullet school:

"Viewers will ultimately decide who won this game, but, at least in the short run, Kerry may have performed some necessary image repair, perhaps increasing his comfort level with wayward Democrats who have been frustrated by his campaign, and demonstrating to independent swing voters that he is more than a mere weather vane.

"At the least, he managed to avoid entangling himself in lengthy new explanations about his past votes on Iraq; at one point, he even managed to pivot from defense to offense by uttering a line that was clearly rehearsed - but arguably effective, at least with some of the skeptics:

"'I made a mistake in how I talked about the war. The president made a mistake by invading Iraq. Which is worse?'"

Al Hunt goes to the experts in the Wall Street Journal:

"John Kerry didn't score a knockout, but he climbed off the political ropes and took the presidential fight to President Bush in the first debate last night. That was the view of two seasoned political strategists -- John Sears, a Republican and Hamilton Jordan, a Democrat -- with no connection to the campaigns."

The New York Post | http://nypost.com/news/nationalnews/29518.htm also relies on a panel of smart people:

"Sen. John Kerry scored a decisive victory over an unusually off-his-game President Bush at the first of three debates last night, according to a 10-person bipartisan panel of political consultants and debate experts interviewed by The Post."

But was Bush really off his game? He was a stronger debater than he had been in 2000--but now has a four-year record to defend.

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com works the body-language beat:

"I found myself agreeing more with Bush than Kerry. But from the very beginning, Kerry achieved something important. In tone and bearing, he seemed calm, authoritative, and, yes, presidential. I watched the C-SPAN version on a split screen, and in that context, it was particularly striking.

"In stark contrast to the Bush-Gore debates, it was Bush who was grimacing, furrowing his brow, almost rolling his eyes and at the very beginning, looking snippy and peevish. He seemed defensive throughout and because his record was front and center - and Kerry's long record in the Senate almost unmentioned - he was actually on the defense. He seemed physically smaller and more mobile than Kerry - and more emotionally alive . . .

"For many people, who have only heard of Kerry from Bush ads or sound-bites or from droning campaign speeches, it will be the first time that Kerry seems strong. In the simple, symbolic man-versus-man contrast, Kerry often seemed bigger. That strikes me as a big deal."

Josh Marshall | http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com reacts in real time:

"There were certainly no Ronald Reagan moments. But there were several times when Kerry landed solid punches that the president seemed unable to counter . . . There were a number of times through the debate when the president stumbled through responses and almost seemed lost."

Slate's Mickey Kaus | http://slate.msn.com/id/2107297/, who had urged Kerry to drop out late last year, has come around, a least for one night:

"Kerry won. I assume everyone is saying this. He not only was shockingly succinct and sharp ('Certainty sometimes can get ya' into trouble') he managed to gloss over all his problems--finessing his prior votes, avoiding the trap of seeming to argue that 1,000 American soldiers died in a vain or inglorious cause, keeping his left in line while saying he wanted to win in Iraq. O.K., maybe he lost a few people on the left. Still. . . .

"2) A skilled debater might have picked Kerry apart; Bush is not that kind of debater;

"3) Bush was badly hurt by, yes, the podium height, which made him seem smaller, in comparison to Kerry, than he actually is. He looked--as a friend of mine put it--a bit like a gargoyle, or someone who needed the podium for protection; Did they really shut down the N.Y. subways during the GOP convention, as Kerry claimed? I think I took the subway during the GOP convention."

I KNOW I did, so I don't know where Kerry got that bit of flawed intelligence.

"4) Bush wasn't that bad--he looked like a plausible president too!"

Dan Kennedy | http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp has similar thoughts, but is less enthusiastic:

"KERRY WON. But Bush wasn't bad. Thus the first debate between the two major-party presidential candidates ended essentially in a draw."

A draw? I hate tie games.

" John Kerry was far more crisp and articulate than George W. Bush, but Bush got his points across, and made the best case he could for the war in Iraq. My first impression was that Kerry was considerably better than Al Gore four years ago - but that Bush was also much better than he was in 2000. Yes, Bush fumbled and paused and looked down, and got a little peevish somewhere around the 30-minute mark.

"But if we've learned anything in the past four years, it's that no one but us Bush-bashers cares. So it comes down, essentially, to what those elusive undecided voters are looking for. Polls still show a great deal of discontent with Bush's presidency. If voters were looking for a reason to switch to Kerry, then it doesn't matter how Bush fared tonight. All that matters is that Kerry came across as presidential and in control."

National Review's Jay Nordlinger | http://nationalreview.com/nordlinger/nordlinger200410010114.asp doesn't sugarcoat the verdict:

"Don't shoot the messenger.

"I thought Kerry did very, very well; and I thought Bush did poorly -- much worse than he is capable of doing. Listen: If I were just a normal guy -- not Joe Political Junkie -- I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate, I would. If I were just a normal, fairly conservative, war-supporting guy: I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate."

Yes, but it doesn't matter, says the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes: | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/707yhfwo.asp

"The good news for Kerry is that on the basis of his solid performance in the first nationally televised debate with President Bush, the griping among Democrats is likely to cease. But change the direction of the campaign, which Bush now leads by a small but significant margin? Probably not. Or affect the outcome? Not that either."

If that's the strongest conservative argument, it was a good night for Kerry here in Florida.