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Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2004 / 20 Tishrei 5765

Roger Simon

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Gloom in the Sunshine State | Ever since its inception 20 years ago, post-presidential debate "spin" has been largely worthless. Partisans from both sides come out after the debate and say predictably partisan things to reporters.

But the spin following the first debate between President Bush and John Kerry in Miami last week was different. For the first time, it was not worthless. Instead, it was a revelation.

Republican spinners were so muted in their assessment of the debate that an air of palpable gloom seemed to hang over them.

"Was Kerry more rhetorically skilled during the debate? Probably," said Nicole Devenish, communications director for the Bush campaign. "That he out flourished us was something we were prepared for. But did he close the credibility gap? No."

John McCain, who ran against Bush in the primaries four years ago, but who has been actively supporting him this year, said on his way into the spin room, "I thought both men acquitted themselves well. Did the dynamics of the race change? I don't think so."

Said Matthew Dowd, chief Bush strategist, "The race probably stays the way it is, which is an advantage for us. A draw is a problem for the person who is behind and we've got a five or six point advantage."

Even Karl Rove, Bush's chief political guru, who can breathe fire with the best of them, was doing no such thing following the debate. "I think it is important to keep in mind that debates will have an impact, but this is a very close race and will remain close to the end," he said.

What was absent was a single Republican saying Bush had won the debate. And that was a clear sign of how badly Bush had done.

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Before the debate, Kerry's campaign team was trying to sell the notion that this was only the first of three debates, that it would not be decisive and that Kerry could slog on no matter how badly he did.

Minutes after the debate ended, however, the Democrats were singing — even crowing — a different tune. "When you win the first debate, the second is easier and you look forward to the third," Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser, said with a huge grin.

The first debate was supposed to be on domestic affairs, but the Bush campaign insisted that it be switched to foreign affairs, feeling this was the president's strongest area. The campaign also felt Bush might be able to score a knock-out of Kerry on charges he "flip-flopped" on Iraq, which might effectively end Kerry's campaign.

But while Bush delivered a sharp attack, his opponent did not hit the mat. And Kerry managed to achieve one of his goals: the "de-coupling" of the war in Iraq from the war on terror.

Bush had effectively used the Republican convention to sell the notion that by attacking Saddam Hussein in Iraq, America was taking revenge for September 11 and striking back at terrorists.

No such thing, Kerry insisted during the debate. "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us; Osama bin Laden attacked us," he said. "Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora… (Bush) outsourced the job to Afghan warlords…."

Kerry had spent a great deal of time rehearsing his Iraq answers, but as he flew from his debate prep site in Wisconsin to Florida on the day before the debate, his aides approached him with a surprise.

They felt his responses on Iraq lacked a bit of emotion because Kerry never actually saw the nightly TV pictures of the fighting and carnage there. "He is always campaigning when the news is on," Lockhart told me, "so we put together 15 minutes of clips from the news, put it on a computer and left him alone to watch it." Lockhart believes it made a difference. "Before, he knew the issue intellectually," Lockhart said. "Now he knows it viscerally."

Still, Bush did not hit the mat, either, and was emotional and convincing when conveying his concern for those fighting in Iraq and their loved ones at home. He told the story of Missy Johnson of North Carolina whose husband was killed in Iraq, saying, "I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy because I understand the stakes of this war on terror."

All political attention now turns to the sole vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards on Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. While few voters cast their votes based on the vice presidential candidate, the debate could be pivotal to Edward's political future. If the Kerry/Edwards ticket wins on Nov. 2, Edwards's future is set, at least for four years. If it loses, however, Edwards's performance in the debate will go a long way in determining how the party views him as a presidential candidate in 2008. Will he be the main challenger to Hillary Clinton or just another losing vice presidential candidate like Joe Lieberman?

Edwards's debate performance is also important because Edwards may not be able to deliver on his big pitch in the Democratic primaries: that he can win southern states. True, he is not at the top of the ticket, but Edwards could fail to carry his home state of North Carolina in November, which would be an embarrassment. In fact, the Democrats could fail to carry any Southern state except Florida (which the Kerry campaign now rates as even.)

"If you had told Democrats that in October the main issue of this campaign was going to be Iraq, the question is whether they would have picked Edwards at all," one political analyst said. "Kerry picked Edwards because he thought the campaign was going to be about domestic issues but it hasn't turned out that way. If Kerry knew the campaign was going to be about Iraq, I am betting he would have gone with Joe Biden as his vice president."

There is also the issue of Edwards's friendly nature. This was seen at one time as being a good counterpoint to Kerry's "aloofness", but as the campaign has gotten down and dirty, the question is whether Edwards can be mean enough to face down Cheney's attack skills.

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