My impression of last night’s presidential debate hasn’t changed after a fairly good night’s sleep: Kerry was in control of the facts and demonstrated the demeanor necessary to convince voters that he could be a strong and determined leader, while Bush seemed peevish, petulant, and slightly flustered when he wasn’t repeating – again and again, like Aunt Mildred’s mynah bird – the lines from the campaign stump. And with the advantage of watching it on C-SPAN’s split screen, I could see Bush acting like a cranky child while Kerry spoke; he hunched over the podium, rarely standing up straight, he furrowed his brow, he smirked, he shook his head, he even sighed. And then there were those long stretches of silence while Bush struggled for an answer (you could almost see the little hour-glass icon as his hard-drive scanned for the file). No, Kerry didn’t lose the Lurch mode until about twenty minutes into it, but he was remarkably succinct for someone with the reputation for going on and on. The little warning lights were telling – Bush was the one who went over his time more often than Kerry…unless you count the times where he gave a ten-word answer and left nothing but dead air hanging there while he shrugged and smirked.
Now comes the hard part; convincing the voters of what they saw. The true results of the debate will be seen in the polls in the next couple of days, and while the insta-polling shows that Kerry got very high marks, you can bet that there will be spinners under the watchful eye of Karl Rove making it sound as if the Senator stripped naked and did the macarena while Bush practiced his speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s hard to come away from this debate without being convinced that while no one pulled off a Lloyd Bentsen moment (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”), Kerry helped himself by countering the Bush mantra that he’s a flip-flopper, and Bush didn’t do himself any good by basically saying that John Kerry is unfit to lead because he doesn’t subscribe to Bush’s strategy for winning the war. That’s not leadership, that’s evangelism, and it’s a clear sign that Bush is the one with the leadership problem.