I’d recommend not falling into the trap of scoring this debate as if it were the culmination of a forensics tournament. For the viewers who tuned in for the first 45 minutes or so, I think Bush was a more effective communicator. He sounded authoritative, his message was clear, and his message makes some level of sense even if you aren’t predisposed to agree with him or with a Republican president per se. Kerry did not come across well during the period. Later, Bush seemed to get a little tired and annoyed, and Kerry picked up a little steam.
But Kerry’s problem is that his message is inherently complicated and would be difficult to communicate effectively for anyone. The war was a mistake, but I’ll fit to win it anyway, but it is a distraction, and I’ll send more equipment, but we’re spending too much on it, and I’ll inspire other countries to join us, but the countries who are there aren’t doing much worth commending, etc., etc.
Bush doggedly responds: you won’t win if you waver. We will prevail. I’m realistic — it’s a tough, hard slog. But I’m optimistic — we will win and freedom in the Middle East will be transformational.
You don’t have to be a slick rhetorician to win this kind of exchange.
Remember, also, the repetition is a good thing, not a bad thing. Let’s face it: we are wonky weirdos. Most viewers probably came in and out of the room, they visited the little voters’ room, they went to make a sandwich. You have to talk to the whole audience, including those who missed your key point the first couple of times you made it.
Kerry had a little more riding on tonight than Bush did, and it just didn’t happen for him. The debate as a whole was informed, substantive, and revealing — but it did not change the dynamics of the race.