Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5765

John M. Baer

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What did we learn from the two middle-aged white guys in dark suits, white shirts, flag lapel pins and red ties with white dots? | OK, the debates are history, begging the question, does history care?

Conventional wisdom offers a resounding YES: No perceived winner of presidential debates ever went on to lose the election.

Think Kennedy-Nixon, Carter-Ford, Reagan-Carter, Bush-Dukakis, etc. That pattern suggests a President Kerry.

He's a better debater.

Still, this is the first race of the post-Sept. 11 world and no one's sure if that makes a difference - if that makes conventional wisdom, you know, not all that wise.

If so, we get four more years. George Bush owns Sept. 11.

In Pennsylvania, the Keystone Poll says the first debate swayed 6 percent of the 77 percent who watched and three in four of those swung to Kerry, which in a race this close can be decisive.

The second debate did little. I expect the same from Wednesday night.

Two middle-aged white guys in dark suits, white shirts, flag lapel pins and red ties with white dots stood their ground.

Kerry won points on guns, the minimum wage and overall style. Bush won points on tax cuts and portraying Kerry as out of "the mainstream" with "no record of leadership" in the Senate.

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This blood sport moves into the final rounds.

Pull up to ringside and try not to get splattered. With formalities over, the rest of the bout is a bare-knuckled brawl.

No polite moderators, questions from the audience or equal-time rebuttals.

Look for liberal, liberal, liberal, 9/11, 9/11 vs. he failed the country, lied to the world and put your job, health care and family at risk.

Hasn't been pretty. Won't get pretty. The worst is yet to come.

It's now all about turnout and whatever it takes to make it happen.

Yet you know these debates make a difference.

At a minimum, they showed us Bush and Kerry unfiltered, their strengths and flaws buck-naked under the unforgiving eyes of live TV and instant post-debate analysis.

What did we learn?

The more likable Bush isn't always that likable. The first debate is remembered for scowls and seeming annoyance at even being challenged.

"Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that," Bush barked in Miami. Not exactly a presidential moment.

(He reclaimed some likability Thursday night. What's he learned from wife and daughters? "To listen to 'em ... to stand up straight and not scowl.")

The more erudite Kerry really is capable of changing positions, even at the same event.

"I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat," Kerry said earnestly in St. Louis.

That was right before he blasted Bush as "preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat." Not quite a crystal-clear worldview.

(He was very clear Thursday night on abortion, assault weapons and the minimum wage.)

Both made mistakes.

In debate one, Kerry said he visited Russian KGB headquarters in "Treblinka" square. He meant Lubyanka Square. Treblinka was a Nazi death camp in Poland.

In debate two, Bush said he heard there are rumors of a military draft "on the Internets." Think he ever uses it (them)?

(He goofed again Thursday night saying he never said he was unconcerned about Osama. He did say it.)

Both can score.

Bush hit Kerry more than once during debates saying Kerry can't lead an alliance to win in Iraq if Kerry believes it's "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Kerry hit Bush (twice Thursday night) as the first president in 72 years to lose jobs.

Neither seems to mind pandering to the trite.

"I am pledging I will not raise taxes," said Kerry in the second debate.

Ever hear that?

"We've got a great country. I love our values," Bush said.

Ever need to hear that?

And even though the Bush team used its upper hand (to do three instead of two debates) to get every advantage in staging and format - I'm surprised one debate wasn't at Ground Zero with bullhorns.

Kerry's clearly better on his feet (as if there ever was a doubt).

Question is whether that's still enough.

Do we think a better debater is also a better leader in a time of crisis?

Debates are history, but history remains to be made.

John Baer is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News Comment by clicking here.


08/04/04: Let's can this mush and have some real ads

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