Debate earns Kerry a second look


Election: The senator's good reviews have voters' attention, but strategists say his campaign needs to do more to win in November.

October 02, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, FLA. — ORLANDO, Fla.- In the initial aftermath of John Kerry's smooth performance in his first debate against President Bush, it was easy to forget one thing: Kerry still lags behind Bush in national polls and faces the much tougher challenge at this critical stage of the race in persuading voters that he deserves their support.

But after Thursday's Miami face-off, Kerry certainly seemed to have earned himself a second look.

Kerry showed an audience of millions Thursday night that he could challenge Bush on the war in Iraq, the president's strongest suit, and may even have redeemed himself in the minds of some voters who wondered whether he could handle being commander in chief.

His debate performance, which continued to receive favorable reviews yesterday, has earned him some much-needed momentum and the chance to energize his candidacy with nearly four weeks to go until Election Day.

But strategists and Kerry's campaign aides acknowledge that the senator's success in the face-to-face contest with Bush could evaporate if he does not follow it with a strong appeal to undecided voters.

Kerry may have gotten people's attention, strategists said, but it is what he will do now that they're willing to watch that will make or break his candidacy.

Campaign aides worked to dampen expectations that Kerry's good debate night would give him a boost in the polls. But it will prompt people to begin focusing more closely on the race, said senior adviser Mike McCurry, allowing Kerry to drive home his message as the two coming presidential debates touch on domestic issues where polls show the Democrat has an advantage over Bush.

"We've got a whole new conversation going on for the next several weeks in the campaign," McCurry told reporters traveling with Kerry in Florida. "That's a good place to be, but it's going to take time for us to try to continue to make this argument."

Kerry is not about to turn his back on foreign policy and national security issues now that the debate is behind him, his aides said. But they said Kerry would try to build on his harsh criticism of Bush's policies on Iraq and terrorism with a broader condemnation of the president's priorities and record.

He began to do that yesterday in a retooled stump speech that began with the same criticisms of Bush's foreign policy that Kerry leveled during the debate, and then moved onto faulting him on issues such as the environment and health care.

Kerry seemed to relish his first day of good news in months, trying out new zingers against Bush.

In Tampa, Kerry mocked Bush's sometimes inarticulate speech, performing an unflattering imitation of the president saying that the country couldn't afford a commander in chief who wilts or wavers.

Bush campaign officials brushed aside instant poll results suggesting that Kerry had won the debate and said the president would not change tactics based on the outcome of the 90-minute rhetorical duel.

Al Gore, too, enjoyed an advantage in the snap surveys that followed his first debate against Bush in 2000, Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman told several reporters traveling with the president in Pennsylvania.

But subsequent polling made clear that Americans "didn't want Al Gore in their living room for four years," Mehlman said.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas said he considered the debate "very much a draw" between Bush and Kerry that would not change either candidate's standing in the race.

Initial reactions to presidential debates - especially closely watched first ones - have historically been unreliable, Goeas said, explaining that perceptions often change in the crucial days that follow.

"I can only think of one where the perceived winner the day after the debate ends up a week later being the perceived winner," Goeas said. That was Bill Clinton in his first debate with Bob Dole in 1996.

But Democrats, who have bemoaned Bush's ability to weather bad news on Iraq and the economy without seeming to pay a price in national polls, took advantage of what they saw as an opening to cut the president down a notch.

Party officials circulated a videotape of camera cutaways from the debate in which Bush smirked, squinted or looked pained while Kerry held forth about the topics on which the president is known to have an advantage.

Bush aides struggled to explain why the president appeared uncharacteristically cranky during the debate. Mehlman said Americans got a new look at Bush Thursday night, explaining his appearance as that of a man showing strength but also communicating to Americans from his heart.

"Not all the American people have seen him speak from his heart," Mehlman said. "I don't think he looked irritated."

"Sometimes you saw a bemused look by President Bush when he was hearing Senator Kerry try to claim that he has been consistent on the issue of Iraq," White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told CNN. "I think that many people across the country might have been bemused, as well."

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