Last night at the beginning of the debate, I was scared. Election debates are not won by the normal rules of debating--in terms of logic and data--they are won by making the audience comfortable. In addition, most of the audience doesn't even see the debate, they get a mediated version of the debate filtered through the professional news media. So when my wife and I sat down on the floor in front of the TV with a pile of junk food and beverages, we were not only listening to the debate, we were trying to guess which images and sound bites would be all over today's news.
Kerry looked dignified and got the tallness points on the handshake. Bush's first answer was a complete non-sequitor. Kerry's answers were clear and thoughtful. Bush looked nervous and petulant. The reaction shots clearly worked against Bush. Lehrer even got Bush to say bin Laden. At twenty minutes it looked good for my guy, I was starting to let myself relax.
Then came the moment I dreaded, "New question, Mr. President. Two minutes. Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?" Bush's answer was okay, but his presentation was great. The little catch in his voice as he talked about the widow Missy Johnson was flawless. I don't know if it was sincere emotion or, as the old joke goes, if he's learned how to fake sincerity. What I knew is that it was good TV. My stomach knotted and I thought, this is the image that we're going to see over and over in tomorrow's news.
But a miracle happened. With his moment of emotion over, Bush went back to looking nervous and petulant and at times downright irritable. His effort to stay on message decayed into whiny repetition. Kerry remained calm, intelligent, and on topic. Bush would ask for an extension and have nothing to say, leaving these uncomfortable empty moments as blinked at the camera. His performance over the next hour was so bad that it completely erased any memory of Missy Johnson.
If the Missy Johnson moment had happened in the last ten minutes of the debate and been fresher in the pundits' memories at the end, we would have lost the election last night. But we won. We know we won because the pundits say so. The results of the instant polling last night said Kerry won the debate but didn't change any minds. It's too early to say that. Like the convention bounce, the results of this will take a few days to soak in. People who are unhappy with Bush, but not yet comfortable with Kerry, will need a few days of listening to the message of the media to be convinced to move one way or the other. Fortunately, the message for the next few days will be Kerry beat Bush; Kerry looks presidential; Kerry answered his critics. I didn't think we could hope for this much, so today I'm a very happy camper.