MIAMI—Karl Rove must have known things didn’t go well when the New York Post asked him whether this was the worst debate of President Bush’s life. No, Rove insisted. This was one of the president’s best debates, and one of John Kerry’s worst. “Really?” asked the reporter, Vince Morris. “You can say that with a straight face?”
As soon as the first presidential debate ended, the reporters and campaign surrogates in attendance hustled into “spin alley,” where Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, Tad Devine, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, and other eminences of spin practice their craft. (There were other, lesser luminaries, such as Kerry’s Swift boat crewmate Del Sandusky, who seemed to have trouble finding reporters to talk to.) The whole affair is a little bit ridiculous, as the participants are less honest than NFL coaches during halftime interviews, but you do get a sense of two things: The questions asked by reporters indicate who the press thinks won the debate, and the answers are a good gauge of how the two campaigns will try to frame the post-debate debate over how each candidate did.
On the first indicator, Bush was the clear loser. One of the first questions asked of Rove was whether the president’s frequent pausing was a problem. Rove disputed that Bush paused because he wasn’t sure what to say. “Paused for effect, is what I think,” he said. Over and over again, Bush surrogates were asked about the president’s demeanor. (Question for Paul Krugman: Are you still angry about the media’s focus on style over substance?) Wasn’t the president defensive? a reporter asked Matthew Dowd. Didn’t he look confused? a reporter asked Ken Mehlman. “I think he spoke with passion,” Mehlman said. Another reporter asked Bartlett, didn’t the president look irritated? Tired? “I think he showed a range of emotions,” Bartlett said.
The Kerry people were triumphant, and they grew more so as the night wore on. Immediately after the debate ended, Tad Devine was confident, saying that Kerry gave the “impression” that he could be president. “I think that’s new to a lot of people” who have been inundated with negative TV ads, Devine said. (Devine also said the Kerry campaign, beginning Friday, would shift to the domestic agenda in its TV advertisements. Kerry will continue to talk about Iraq, but there won’t be many ads about it.) Later in the evening, however, Devine’s quiet confidence was replaced by gloating. He waved the numbers from the CBS and ABC overnight polls, which he had written down on a notepad, showing that wide margins of voters thought Kerry won. “Blowout is the word that comes to mind,” Devine said. “Tonight they saw the 44th president of the United States. His name is John Kerry.”
But didn’t the overnight polls look good for Al Gore at first? “I think Gore hurt himself against Gore. And I’ll sigh to that effect,” Devine said. So, you’re not worried that the Bush campaign will come up with some misstatements or mistakes by Kerry and use them to change voters’ minds? “I missed all the sighs tonight from John Kerry,” Devine cackled. If Kerry is within a couple of points by the middle of next week, he said, then the campaign will consider it a victory. Matthew Dowd, on the other hand, predicted only that Bush’s lead would solidify in the polls. “It won’t expand,” he said.
Each campaign thought it had a moment from the debate that it could use to bludgeon the other side. The Bush campaign said Kerry increased the contradictions in his Iraq position by saying that Bush made a mistake when he invaded Iraq but also saying that American soldiers were not dying for a mistake. Kerry’s position on the war showed “an escalation of vacillation to a more sinister place, one where he manipulates his positions based on political calculations,” Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said. “It’s really a strong skill to say something that’s so disconnected from what you said yesterday. And I will call it a skill.” The Kerry campaign thinks Bush made a huge mistake by talking about taxes after Kerry proposed a number of ways to improve homeland security. Both Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry said Bush showed he thinks tax cuts are more important than homeland security, and that the comment was Bush’s worst moment.
I asked Dan Bartlett if he thought it was bad that President Bush kept having to look down at the podium and read his remarks. No, Bush was “taking notes,” Bartlett said, and he had to do that because “Sen. Kerry was throwing the kitchen sink at him.” President Bush may not be “articulate,” he said, but he won the debate with his “conviction and core beliefs.” Using a phrase the Bush surrogates deployed frequently, Bartlett said Bush spoke “from the heart.” I asked the same question of Mike McCurry. His answer: “There’s some things you just don’t have to spin.”