President Bush had a pretty good debate last night, but he spent a whole lot of time ducking.

John Kerry ducked a few tough ones too, but it was the president who kept talking about No Child Left Behind every time he didn't like one of Bob Schieffer's questions.

Should the minimum wage be raised? Kerry said he'd hike it to $7. Bush devoted one sentence to saying he supported some Mitch McConnell plan--he certainly hasn't talked about a wage boost--and then switched to education.

Should Roe v. Wade be overturned? Bush said only that he wouldn't impose a litmus test on judges, though everyone knows most of his appointees are opposed to abortion.

Outsourcing of jobs? Bush talked about education.

Why didn't he fight to extend the assault weapons ban? Bush said he was told that "the bill was never going to move," then moved on to discussing gun owners' rights.

Affirmative action? Bush talked about Pell grants.

Kerry ducked on saving Social Security, even after Schieffer pointed out that saying you won't cut benefits, privatize the system or raise taxes was not a plan. And he was fairly transparent in trying to appeal to women. He worked gender into a number of answers, such as turning the minimum-wage question into a discussion of why women are paid 76 percent of the average salary earned by men.

In case you missed it, we also got a brief glimpse of two very different views of the media. On a question about health care, Kerry said: "Well, two leading national news networks have both said the president's characterization of my health care plan is incorrect. One called it 'fiction.' The other called it 'untrue.'"

Bush's rebuttal: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about -- never mind."

It wasn't Kerry's warmest performance, though he gave good answers on his faith and his mother on her deathbed. He never did the Reaganesque thing of bringing up people he had met to personalize his litany of statistics. The president, as usual, was often folksy, joking about not scowling, though he stuck to his own talking points--he kept bringing up what he described as Kerry's 98 tax-increase votes.

They both made factual flubs. Kerry stepped on his line about Bush not meeting with the NAACP by inexplicably accusing the president of not meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. Wrong--Bush did, twice.

Bush insisted he couldn't recall having said he wasn't worried about Osama bin Laden. It took CNN less than 15 minutes to cue up the 2002 tape: "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Bush (who originally opposed creating a Homeland Security department) accused Kerry of voting against the bill to form the agency. Kerry voted for it.

The Tempe debate lacked any sense of electricity--at least compared to the Yankees/Red Sox game on Fox, which undoubtedly cut into the candidates' audience. These guys know each others' moves. There was no obvious turning point. And the pundit reaction was essentially that it was a draw.

"I don't think it changed very much tonight," Tim Russert said.

"I don't think this is going to change the dynamic of the campaign," George Stephanopoulos said.

"I would probably have to give it to John Kerry. He seemed a little bit more poised," said John Roberts.

The tone was, shall we say, very different on Fox News. "The president was very much on the offense and John Kerry very much on defense," Chris Wallace said.

Bush was "smashing," said Fred Barnes.

"Bush knocked Kerry out tonight. He just slaughtered him," said Bill Kristol.

"This makes Bush the Comeback Kid of the debates," said Mort Kondracke.

Are they right? CBS's quickie poll gave it to Kerry, 39 to 25--about the same margin as in the first debate. CNN/USA Today had Kerry winning, 52 to 39. ABC (with 38 percent GOPers and 30 percent Dems polled) had Kerry by an eyelash, 42 to 41.

The Kerry camp, meanwhile, was taking the spin game very seriously. Bob Shrum, who's been so behind the scenes that no one remembers what he looks like, popped up to spin Chris Matthews on MSNBC. John Edwards assumed the Kerry-did-great role on CBS. And Vanessa Kerry praised her dad to Larry King.

Here's a perfect example of spin. Stephanopoulos said Bush had been especially effective on education, immigration and faith. He then cited some areas where Kerry was strong. Here's what appeared in a Kerry/Edwards email:

"ABC's George Stephanopoulos: 'I thought Senator Kerry was most effective on talking about jobs, minimum wage, healthcare and social security.'"

Here's what appeared in a Bush/Cheney email:

"ABC's George Stephanopoulos Says President Bush Was 'Particularly Effective Tonight.'"


Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times |,1,5625872.story?coll=la-home-headlines sees both men playing to their core supporters:

"After two debates about strength, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry dueled to demonstrate compassion in their surprisingly subdued final encounter. Although the first two encounters produced a succession of sharp exchanges on national security issues, the candidates generated far fewer sparks Wednesday night as they sparred over a wide range of domestic issues that hadn't been widely discussed in their race.

"Bush began with an aggressive effort to paint Kerry as an ideological liberal, but he pursued that goal with steadily less energy as the debate proceeded. Instead, on issues such as immigration, gay rights and abortion, Bush sought to reestablish his image as a compassionate conservative by combining conservative positions on the issues with emphatic pleas for tolerance and understanding. Kerry delivered a steadier and more confident performance than in last week's debate, the second face-off. From the outset, he sought to portray himself as a tribune of the middle class, promising to defend American workers and repeatedly charging that Bush's economic policies had favored the affluent.

"And after seeming uncertain and defensive on social issues last week, Kerry expressed more unambiguous support for causes important to his political base -- from protecting abortion rights to defending affirmative action."

Michael Tackett of the Chicago Tribune |,1,7965840.story?coll=chi-news-hed has a love/hate view of the Tempe tussle:

"After the third and final debate of this presidential campaign, the race in many ways can be reduced to this: a contest between the lovers and the haters.

"The lovers are those who hold great affection for George W. Bush, his philosophy of government, his socially conservative beliefs and his resolve on issues like Iraq and the war on terror. The haters are those who can't stand the president for precisely the same reasons. There hasn't been a grand embrace of challenger John Kerry, and even in the waning days before the election, a Kerry agenda is still not easy to define.

"But if the country were electing a debater-in-chief, after three rounds, most would give the title to the Democrat. His performances were more even and consistent, his presentation of facts and command of issues more clear. On this night, his burden was obvious: to persuade people to deny the president a second term, to point out with precision what the haters hate most."

But what about the non-lovers and non-haters who will decide this election?

Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe | says Kerry closed the gap overall:

"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.

"President Bush, who was widely perceived as inarticulate and at times surly in the first debate, recouped somewhat in a feisty second debate and reinforced his conservative credentials on domestic issues last night -- a performance that may well deliver more core supporters than he attracted four years ago.

"But the president's campaign began the night, as it began the entire debate season, with higher hopes: to plant serious doubts about Kerry's fitness for office. And the debate season, which began with Bush seeking to solidify his lead in the race, ended with each candidate well-armed to fight to the finish."

Well, Kerry certainly performed better than the hometown Red Sox.

Todd Purdum of the New York Times | also sees a net gain for Kerry:

"George W. Bush and John Kerry ended the last of their three debates as they began them, with starkly defined differences in substance, semantics and style on almost every major question facing the American public, and they head into the campaign's homestretch amid every indication that their debates mattered - perhaps more than any such encounters in a quarter century.

"They 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.

"In just 13 days the debates have upended the horse race and brought Mr. Kerry back to dead-even in the polls."

Kerry won the Luntz primary, according to the New York Post |

"There's no debating the fact that John Kerry cleaned up last night in the eyes of a group of Arizona swing voters taking part in a professionally run focus group.

"Of the 23 undecided voters in consultant Frank Luntz's focus group for the 'Tempest in Tempe,' 13 scored it a Kerry victory, 0 gave it to Bush, and 10 called the face-off a draw.

"But Kerry's solid debate performance won him only slight inroads for Election Day. Kerry moved four undecided voters to his camp, while Bush picked up two."

Zero said Bush won? Do the Fox guys know about this?

Slate's Will Saletan, | in full baseball mode, scores it for Kerry:

"President Bush walked the bases full, and Kerry hit a grand slam.

"I counted one exchange that Bush won and another that Kerry lost. The topic Bush aced was Social Security. His answer was brave and thoughtful. He pointed out that 'the cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is okay, far exceeds the costs' of taking painful steps to fix it. Kerry responded with a shameful dodge: 'If, later on, after a period of time, we find that Social Security is in trouble, we'll pull together the top experts . . . and we'll make whatever adjustment is necessary.' Bush promptly nailed him: 'I didn't hear any plan to fix Social Security. I heard more of the same.'

"The exchange Kerry lost was on affirmative action. He chose to defend its worst form--minority-owned business set-asides, which compensate the wealthiest blacks and Latinos for wrongs suffered primarily by the poorest. He also falsely accused Bush of never having met with the Congressional Black Caucus. When Bush corrected him, Kerry stared down at his podium with an expression of fear that he might well have screwed up.

"If you're one of those Bush supporters who just want the good news, you'd better stop here, because the rest of the night was Kerry's. Let's start with body language. Kerry's was excellent. He has improved on this score in every debate. I don't know why it took him 20 years in office and two years on the presidential campaign trail to look into the camera. Maybe that guy with the tax question in the second debate got him over the hump. Whatever the reason, Kerry is now doing it in the debates and in his ads, and he turns out to be damned good at it. . . . I caught him shaking his head just once. Another time, he grinned inappropriately when Bush was talking about abortion. The rest of his performance was flawless. His answers were crisp. His smiles recalled the good-natured confidence of Ronald Reagan."

Reagan? Take a deep breath, Will.

"Half an hour into the debate, as Kerry spoke about respecting gay people, a look of sincere attention passed across Bush's face. I remember that look, because it was the only time I saw it. The rest of the night, Bush labored unconvincingly to look as though he was listening. He seemed to be trying to rectify his listless, annoyed performance in the first debate. . . . He overcompensated . . . Bush blinked, bubbled, giggled, and blurted at odd moments. He grinned strangely as he talked about tax increases, entrenched special interests, defeat in Iraq, and contaminated flu vaccines. He held his chin up and tried to smile each time Kerry rebuked him, but the expression on his face was that of a fraternity pledge struggling to look like he was having a good time in the midst of a spanking."

Good analogy, though he didn't look quite so strained to me.

Salon's Eric Boehlert | faults the media's lack of enthusiasm:

"It's hard to imagine that if an array of instant poll results spread over three debates and two weeks showed that John Kerry had failed to win a single survey, let alone a single debate, that Wednesday night's media spin would have been as humdrum as it was, when polls once again revealed Kerry had bested President Bush for the third time in as many tries. . . .

"For Kerry, it's a rather startling and completely unforeseen achievement, considering Bush entered the final stretch season with an unblemished career debate record and had been given high marks by the press for his debate message discipline and ability to connect with voters. Yet he went O for 3.

"Despite the consistent polling results, most of the assembled television pundits Wednesday night considered the debate to be a draw and suggested it would, in the end, have little impact on Election Day. Again, it's hard to imagine that the media response would have been so reserved if it were Bush completing a debate sweep. Either the pundits are right to discount the importance of the debates and that the last two presidential face-offs really were draws, or voters have been sending a clear message over the last two weeks, one that's been falling on deaf ears inside the media's Beltway. We'll know the answer to that question in 20 days."

It wouldn't be the first time the pundits have blown it. Remember, they wrote off Kerry back in Iowa.

Andrew Sullivan's snap judgment--Bush on style:

"Of all the debates, this seemed to me to be the hardest to call. On substance, I give Kerry a clear advantage. There were some issues in which he simply out-debated the president, answered more questions and had a better case. But on manner and style, Bush came in extremely strongly in the last half-hour, emerging finally as the funny, humane figure that many of us came to admire in the last election cycle. Over all, Kerry cemented his new image as calmer and, oddly enough, more presidential than Bush.

"But Bush critically regained his likability, his rapport with people, and his moderate voice. What all this means I'm not sure. Kerry seemed marginally more likable than before, thanks, in part, to the president - but he's still a stiff; and we may be tiring of him a little already. Bush, however, came off as a good guy, but he didn't really advance on his fundamental weak spot: competence and a vision for the next four years."

Oh, and that sexual harassment suit against Bill O'Reilly by a former producer, charging him with attempted phone sex and other misconduct? The New York Daily News | has this report | on O'Reilly's counter suit and this report on the accuser, and the Fox-owned New York Post | covers the controversy here.