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Thursday, October 14, 2004

New York Times > Quick Verdict on Results of the Most Crucial Debate

Published: October 14, 2004

TEMPE, Ariz., Oct. 13 - With an overwhelming perception that Senator John Kerry had won the first two debates, the predebate story line playing out among commentators on cable and network television and the Internet during the hours before the debate was clear: It was do or die for President Bush.
"How he does tonight,'' said Brigitte Quinn, an anchor on Fox News, "could be the deciding factor in whether he gets a second term.''
Noting the belief among Mr. Kerry's aides that Mr. Bush could not afford to be perceived as losing all three debates, Carl Quintanilla, the NBC News correspondent, reported on "NBC Nightly News," "The stakes are high tonight for Mr. Kerry, but even higher for Mr. Bush.''

Mr. Kerry had been declared the victor by a majority of commentators almost immediately after the first debate. This time, it was an initial mixed verdict that, if anything, tilted slightly toward Mr. Kerry as quickie media polls trickled in.
It took but 25 minutes for the first instant poll to hit, from ABC News: 41 percent said Mr. Bush had won, 42 percent said Mr. Kerry had won and 14 percent said neither had won, a statistical tie, though among a group more Republican than Democrat.
But not everybody waited so long to pass judgment, and not everybody agreed with the consensus opinion. Within five minutes, Polipundit, a conservative Web blogger, had not only called the debate for Mr. Bush, but also the entire election.
"Kerry comes off as an arch-pessimist, reciting a litany of woes that could depress anyone,'' Polipundit wrote. "Meanwhile, Bush is cheerfully celebrating the fact that a 19-year-old girl was the first democratic voter in the history of Afghanistan.'' And Polipundit concluded: "Americans like optimists. This election is over.''
"BUSH WINS," Michael Graham declared on National Review Online at 9:36. "Thirty minutes in and Bush is actually winning. For real." But 16 minutes earlier, on the same site, Jonathan H. Adler, was not so bullish. "Kerry just noted that Bush has never vetoed a spending bill - a charge that Bush could have pre-empted in the last debate,'' he wrote. "This is damaging attack because it demoralized the conservative base."
Just after 10 p.m., the Democratic Web blogger Ann Althouse wrote on "A glob of foam forms on the right side of his mouth! Yikes! That's really going to lose the women's vote.''
Some people posting messages on the liberal "Table Talk'' section of had their own concerns.
"Is it my imagination,'' wrote StephenA at 10:02 p.m., "or is Bush getting the last word a lot more often than Kerry?''
A minute later, on the same site, Lola 1970 wrote, "O.K. Kerry has enough info to go for the jugular ... what is he waiting for???''
But liberal bloggers were generally just as bullish as conservative ones. "Kerry is on Fire!'' was the post on DailyKos at 10:11 p.m.
Tom Slick wrote on Salon's Table Talk site three minutes before the debate's close, "Sounds like one big win and two 'narrow' wins for J.K.," and exclaimed, "Sweep!"
At the debate's conclusion, television commentators were equally split - and both campaigns had quotations to show their guy on top.
It was their comments that both campaigns watched most closely. "What they say can change people's perceptions of what they just saw,'' Nicolle Devenish, Mr. Bush's communications director, said in an interview before the debate.
"When all is said and done," said Carlos Watson of CNN, "I think John Kerry will be proclaimed the winner, which I think will be significant because I think he will be viewed as having won all three debates."
John Roberts of CBS News said: "I would probably have to give it to John Kerry. He seemed a little bit more poised."
But on Fox News, Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said, "I think Bush knocked Kerry out tonight," and added, "He just slaughtered him."
Republicans quoted in an e-mail message George Stephanopoulos of ABC News as calling Mr. Bush "particularly effective tonight."
But more polls were still to come in. A CBS News poll showed that 39 percent of respondents said Mr. Kerry had won and 25 percent said Mr. Bush had won.
A Gallup poll of 511 debate viewers conducted for CNN and USA Today gave the debate to Mr. Kerry, 52 percent to 39 percent.

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