It's hard to say if it was that smirk, or his repeated insistence that he would never change course in Iraq, but by the end of the first presidential debate President Bush had come awfully close to losing the vote of Republican Thomas C. Racosky.
"The president appears to me to have a pretty big ego, and he's letting it get in the way of what's best for the American people," the goateed Racosky, a retired builder, said after watching Thursday night's presidential debate. "Before tonight, I really wouldn't have known which way I was leaning. If I had to vote now, I guess it'd be for Kerry."
Racosky is a swing voter in a swing district in a swing state, a political moderate living at the crossroads of Republican farmlands and cities once defined by hulking steel mills and home to technology and service firms. He was among 120 voters, many of them undecided, in three states -- Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Michigan -- who watched the debate with Washington Post reporters.
The national television audience of 62.5 million people was up 34 percent over the nearly 47 million people who watched the first debate between Bush and Al Gore four years ago. Pollsters and political analysts caution that it is too soon to draw conclusions about what, if any, long-term impact the debate will have on voters' thinking.
But a majority of the voters interviewed echoed the results of snapshot national polls taken immediately after the debate. Namely, they said that Democratic challenger John F. Kerry carried himself better than most had expected, sounding confident and cogent talking about issues widely seen as Republican strengths -- the international fight against terrorists and, to a lesser extent, the war in Iraq. Bush, in contrast, struck many as flustered and halting, and off his rhetorical game.
Even several voters who strongly oppose Kerry, such as John LaIacona, 53, who works as general manager of a wrench manufacturer in Fayetteville, Ark., gave grudging credit to the senator from Massachusetts. "John Kerry may have come across to some people who may be on the fence as being more emphatic," LaIacona said. "If you didn't know him, he was very convincing."
In Albion, Mich., a small town nestled at a fork of the Kalamazoo River, a cluster of undecided voters walked away convinced Kerry had won the debate -- although most said he had not yet won their vote. "It's the most clear I've heard John Kerry in 10 months -- it wasn't what I expected," said George Walls, 33, an admissions counselor at Albion College. "I didn't think he could boil down his message. He's always gone to New York by way of China, as my dad used to say."
In Allentown, more than 130 people gathered in an auditorium at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts institution, to watch the debate with political science professor Chris Borick. The voters, who ranged from elderly ladies with walkers to college secretaries and high-tech workers, spoke of their election-year priorities, short lists that usually numbered three items: Iraq, terrorism and jobs.
They worried about abandoning a president caught in a tough spot -- even if it is a war of his own creation.
"The war was a mistake, but I want to see a person solve the problem they created," said Alex Cole, a Republican who at 49 was involuntarily retired after being forced out at Lucent Technologies. "Bush has my vote, but this is the best election I've ever seen for voting 'none of the above.' "
The audience held clickers that allowed them to register their response, question by question. The voting ran Bush's way at first, as he spoke of the nation's duty to stay the course and "protect our children and grandchildren."
Then, slowly, the tide began running the other way.
When Kerry said that Bush had "not been candid with the American people" about Iraq, and when he accused the president of "outsourcing" the crucial battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan to local warlords, his words resonated. By debate's end, the audience was giving Kerry a higher score on almost every question. When Bush smirked or was at a loss for words, a few chuckles could be heard.
"You could see him hesitating," said Barbara Newhard, a middle-aged undecided voter. "Those looks of his drove me nuts. It was like Bush couldn't stand to hear the truth."
Bruce Glazier is 60, a bearded bear of a man who opposed the war and watched his 401(k) portfolio do a header these past few years. Still, he was ready to vote for Bush until the debate. "Kerry came across well, with no hesitation and no silly faces and lots of brains," Glazier said. "It upsets me that Bush can't admit a mistake in Iraq. He needs to take a lesson from Dan Rather and apologize."
Not all are convinced. Dan Bosket was one of the few African Americans in the audience, a local NAACP president with a son in the Army Reserve. "If the country isn't safe, what's the point of a job?" he said. "Kerry seemed much better prepared, but if we have another war, maybe I want a cowboy in the president's office."
In Fayetteville -- in a county that has given its vote to both Democrats and Republicans in the past 16 years -- 10 people sat down to watch the debate in the home of public relations executive Elise Mitchell. All came in leaning toward one candidate or the other, and there were no desertions.
But most of the Bush supporters agreed that the president had not presented his case very well. They spoke of his posture, his stammering, even the poor camera angles. The president "came across as too 'good old boy,' " said Penny LaIacona, a Bush supporter. "He was too relaxed. He seemed to hesitate a lot. The hesitation itself was very distracting."
Kerry unnerved a few Republicans for a different reason. "I was absolutely shocked how well Kerry came across," said Ritta Mitchell, a Republican.
Not that Kerry picked up any new votes. "I think Kerry is devious," LaIacona said. "I feel like he's saying one thing but not coming across completely with his ultimate goal or plan. I don't feel I can trust him."
The president's informality bothered two Democrats, not least when Bush referred to Russian President Putin as "Vladimir." "That's disrespectful," said Joe Campbell, a retired executive of a poultry company. "I think it's an indication of how he thinks of the leaders of the rest of the world."
Dennis Hunt, an investment banker, voted for Bill Clinton twice, and Gore in 2000, but said he would probably go with Bush. "He doesn't bother me enough to push him out of office," Hunt said. The financial executive, though, is disgusted with the campaign. "With all the issues we have to talk about, these guys have been focused on what they did or didn't do 30 years ago."
In Michigan, a state regarded as vital to Kerry's prospects, polling of late has suggested a tight race. Here as elsewhere, the issues of national security and jobs predominate. As the debate ended, the audience of undecided voters at Albion gave Kerry the clear advantage. The senator thought quicker on his feet, they said, while Bush appeared flustered and agitated, and often seemed to struggle to fill the time allotted to him.
Both parties are in pursuit of the "soccer mom" vote, so the vote of soccer coach Lisa Roschek, 29, might be seen as a holy grail. She has never voted, a string she is determined to break this November, and came to the debate not much caring for either candidate. She said she was pleasantly surprised by Kerry and found Bush annoying and unpersuasive.
Roschek applauded Kerry for challenging the president's assertion that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States made necessary the war on Iraq. Kerry pointed out that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that attack, which was plotted and carried out by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
"Good point!" Roschek said to the television screen. "That was huge for me."
By night's end, as everyone trooped out into the crisp autumn air, most agreed that Kerry had won the debate, if not yet their votes. They will watch the next debates, on the economy and domestic policies, very closely.
"This was only one set of issues tonight: national security," said Bobby Lee, sports information director at Albion College. "There's so much more out there."
Staff writers Peter Slevin in Albion, Mich., and Lois Romano in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this report.