The debate tonight came close to being a disaster for President Bush.
What? You expected spin from the MerryMadMonk?
Not a chance.
Kerry was calm, forceful, articulate and well-prepared. He pretty much left his obnoxious, condescending arrogance at the door.
President Bush was agitated, hesitant, inarticulate and unprepared for the debate.
President Bush missed several chances to blow Kerry out of the water.
One of the more egregious misses: when Kerry told the story of parents telling him they were spending their own money to buy their sons' body armor, President Bush should have led his response with the fact that Kerry voted against $87 billion dollars to support our troops -- a chunk of that money was specifically for body armor.
Not only did President Bush not lead his response with that, he didn't even mention it until a couple of questions later. What is worse, I don't even remember the substance of the President's response.
President Bush repeated himself more times than was comfortable to watch. He seemed to do it when he would get flustered, which was often. Commenting on Kerry's "mixed message" is good, but not over and over again .. and a couple of times out of context. "It's hard work" was also over-used.
President Bush's posture and body language were his biggest negatives in my book. He exuded tenseness. Shoulders hunched, leaning on the podium. Not only did it make him look physically smaller than he really is, it made him look less presidential.
I thought President Bush was most effective when talking about the need to demonstrate leadership and not to denigrate our allies or our mission. Kerry's "wrong war at the wrong time" sends the wrong message to our troops, our allies, the Iraqis ... and although, the President didn't say this -- our enemies. He seemed to want to say it, but would stop just short of it (At least, that's the impression I came away with).
For this first debate, on a scale of 1 - 10, I give Kerry a 9. I give President Bush a 5. If someone had asked me for a prediction before the debate, I would have said: Kerry - 8, President Bush - 7.
Yes, I know that debates are almost always the hardest on an incumbent. It's the incumbent's record that is being debated -- but this debate was on foreign policy and President Bush clearly had the advantage going in.
What does it all mean?
The polls will shift. The willy-nilly, namby-pamby undecideds will be less undecided. They will tilt toward Kerry. I expect the President's 8-point lead to evaporate when the polls come out early next week.
Old Media will trumpet Kerry's "comeback". They would have spun it that way even had the debate been a draw. They've had the articles and columns on their word processors for days now, just waiting to send to the printer. Kerry's strong performance will give weight to Old Media's argument.
The RNC will attempt to spin the debate to the President's favor. Other than pointing out obvious Kerry misstatement of facts, I believe this will be a big mistake. They would do better to acknowledge that yes, Kerry won this one.
Terry McAuliffe will be so beside himself that he'll predict a landslide for Kerry.
What else does it mean?
A closer race than it was a few hours ago.