When John Kerry and George W. Bush step off a University of Miami stage at 10:30 tomorrow night, the battle will just be getting underway.
Just ask Chris Lehane, who was Al Gore's spokesman when quickie polls showed his man winning the first debate against Bush by as much as 14 points. But Bush operatives began highlighting small errors Gore had made -- such as saying he had visited Texas with the federal disaster director, not the assistant director -- and calling the network morning shows with examples. By the time the New York Post ran the headline "Liar! Liar!," the media consensus was that a heavy-sighing Gore had blown it.
"We went through the debate thinking Gore had done pretty well," Lehane says. "But the Bush campaign seized on the mistakes and did a pretty effective job of focusing attention on them. That played into the negative story line on Gore."
Says Stuart Stevens, a Bush adviser then and now: "The Gore people were totally convinced they had won overwhelmingly. We were in a room next to them and we could hear them yelling and chanting."
Tens of millions of Americans will watch the first of three Bush-Kerry debates and draw their own tentative conclusions as to who got the best of it. But perceptions can shift as commentators, analysts and spinners chew things over and selected sound bites are endlessly replayed on television, creating "moments" that may not have seemed particularly dramatic at the time.
The post-debate debate "can influence things in a major way," says Scott Reed, who was Bob Dole's 1996 campaign manager. "Most people watching aren't sitting with pad and paper keeping score, except for the media. The 72 hours after the debate are when all the decisions are made, both at the water cooler and on the front pages of papers."
Stevens trots out a sports analogy, saying that "we all watch the Super Bowl, but we enjoy what the guys in the booth are saying. After the debates, it's not really over, it's halftime. The postgame spin helps frame the next debate as well."
Far more than most campaign events, the debates are unfiltered, in the sense that they are 90 uninterrupted minutes of the candidates going at it. Initial impressions will likely form around the Bush and Kerry styles -- did the president smirk, was the senator sufficiently likable -- as much as about the specifics of Jim Lehrer's questions on foreign policy.
"Viewers, without the aid of snarky commentators, noticed shall we say Al Gore's breathing problems during his sighs in the debate," says USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. But, he says, "once you've seen the debate, the commentary brings it home to you: This is what was really important."
Something along those lines happened with July's Democratic convention, which was initially depicted by most reporters and pundits as a solid success. But as Kerry slipped in the polls, the conventional wisdom, driven in part by Republican carping, became that he had spent too much time talking about his Vietnam service and not enough about his agenda for the country. Now the media routinely describe the Boston gathering as somewhere between a missed opportunity and a flop.
The classic example of a debate that morphed into a debacle was Gerald Ford's Oct. 6, 1976, faceoff with Jimmy Carter. A Washington Post story the next morning relegated to the 32nd paragraph Ford's statement that there was no Soviet domination of countries such as Poland. But the next day Carter called the remarks a "disgrace" and "very serious blunder," and on Oct. 8 a Post front-page story began: "President Ford's observation that 'there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe' poses an immediate problem for him." The media furor lasted for days until Ford acknowledged the obvious, by which time the damage had been done.
Some debate turning points are perfectly obvious at the time. Ronald Reagan looked old and a bit confused in his first 1984 encounter with Walter Mondale, especially when he ran out of time with his rambling closing remarks. Lloyd Bentsen scored a TKO with his "You're no Jack Kennedy" line against Dan Quayle in 1988. Michael Dukakis gave a bloodless answer that year to a question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife, forfeiting his last chance at overtaking the man now called Bush 41.
But four years later, when Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot met in a town meeting debate in Richmond, the initial press coverage was that the debate was largely uneventful, though Clinton was described as better at feeling the audience's pain. A Maureen Dowd sidebar in the New York Times, however, noted that Bush was "checking his watch" as the questioning about the economy dragged on, and the media soon seized on that glance as symbolic of a president bored by domestic policy.
No debate would be complete without the expectations game, the tired-but-true ritual in which each candidate's spinners try to build up the other guy. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd calls Kerry "the best debater since Cicero." Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart says the president "has never lost a debate that I know of." With those kinds of benchmarks, any sub-Cicero performance will seem like a colossal disappointment.
Slate political writer William Saletan calls the post-debate analysis "huge," noting that the average person probably doesn't watch the whole hour and a half, or raids the fridge in the middle, and goes to bed without a fixed view of the outcome.
"What are you going to remember? You remember what's repeated to you on TV or in the papers. It decides everything."