In the second of the presidential debates, the onus of questioning moved from the hands of professional journalists, and into the hands of voters - and it showed, in not just the questions asked, but in the phrasing, tone and tenor.
External Link: The Transcript
In light of reports that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, you have justified the war by saying Saddam Hussein had the intent to develop such weapons. Do you think that justification is tenable, given that other countries like Iran and North Korea actually have weapons of mass destruction? - that was number two, to President George Bush.
The transcript gives you more examples - of pointed questions, on issues that ranged from the war in Iraq and the larger war on terror, to domestic issues such as health care reform, environmental policy, stem cell research, taxes, the draft, and the hugely divisive issue of abortion.
On balance, President Bush was far more in control of his expressions, and his emotions, than in the first debate; the fact that the town-hall format allowed both candidates freedom to stroll around was clearly something he relished.
Overall, his performance was far more controlled than in the first debate -- the downside was that time and again, he went back to his talking points, creating a certain impression of 'uh oh, I've heard these exact same words before'.
John Kerry, in the segment on Iraq, stayed on-message; his performance in that segment was neither better, nor worse, than in the first debate last Friday. It was in the segment that focused on domestic issues that he really came into his own, talking with authority, citing facts and figures, and continually putting the president on the mat over his tax policies that, Kerry argued, had shackled progress in every direction.
The caliber of the two was best demonstrated in questions that challenged them, put them on the mat. President Bush faced several such -- perhaps the most noticeable being when he was asked, point blank, why he had blocked the import of cheap, affordable drugs from Canada.
Bush was clearly off guard here - I blocked them, he argued, out of concern for the people's safety, because I could not be sure if they were from Canada "or some Third World."
Kerry pounced - four years ago, Kerry said, President Bush was asked at this very venue this very question and he said, then, that he thought it (importing cheap drugs from Canada) was a very good idea. The president, he said, is not leveling with you; we passed the bill to permit import of drugs from Canada, we paid attention to all safety issues, and the president blocked it.
A key area of debate related to spending, and taxation. Judging by the questioning, there was clearly some concern that Kerry's plans involving medicare, social security and other domestic issues would involve enormous spending, and that he would as a result raise taxes on the middle class.
Thus, he was asked, 'Will you look at the camera point blank and vow to not raise taxes for those earning $ 200,000 or less?' Kerry did.
An interesting aside came while Kerry was rebutting Bush's assertion that the Kerry tax plan would put a tax burden on small businesses. To drive home his point that there were too many loopholes in tax law, Kerry said that both Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, qualified as small businesses. 'President Bush owns a timber business,' Kerry said.
Bush blew it. "I own a timber business? You want some wood, Charlie?" he chuckled.
It's likely to come back and bite him - here's why. The other day, Cheney suggested that people should go check factcheck.org (though Cheney misstated it when he called it factcheck.com, which sent a lot of people on a web
So the Republicans know of factcheck.org. Useful site, that - and here is what it says on the subject of Bush's timber business (Here's the link to the full story http://www.factcheck.org/article.aspx@DocID=265 - read through to the middle): "President Bush himself would have qualified as a "small business owner" under the Republican definition, based on his 2001 federal income tax returns. He reported $ 84 of business income from his part ownership of a timber-growing enterprise. However, 99.99% of Bush's total income came from other sources that year. (Bush also qualified as a "small business owner" in 2000 based on $ 314 of "business income," but not in 2002 and 2003 when he reported his timber income as "royalties" on a different tax schedule.)
Vice President Cheney and his wife Lynne qualify as "small business owners" for 2003 because 3.5% of the total income reported on their tax returns was business income from Mrs. Cheney's consulting business. She reported $ 44,580 in business income on Schedule C, nearly all of it from fees paid to her as a director of the Reader's Digest. But giving the Cheneys a tax cut didn't stimulate any hiring; she reported zero employees."
On another occasion, a young lady asked Kerry if he would guarantee that her tax dollars were not spent to support abortion.
It was a tricky question, given that the issue is divisive. "I respect the sentiment that fuels that question," Kerry said, before establishing his own Catholic leanings and his personal opposition to abortion. "But I cannot," he said, "legislate my personal beliefs - as president, I have to be representative of all faiths and all beliefs."
It was not exactly his best moment of the evening. However, on balance, it was Kerry who came out the better in the exchanges, and made the most gains.
He used every opportunity to drive his core messages home - the single biggest point of attack of the evening being the Bush tax cuts. This is the first ever occasion, he pointed out, that the US had seen a tax cut during a war - unprecedented, in regimes ranging from Roosevelt to Kennedy to Reagan.
The biggest gain for Bush is that with this debate, he can finally put Iraq behind him, since the third debate focuses entirely on domestic issues.
About time -- his argument that Al Qaeda is on the run seemed particularly threadbare on a morning when the papers were plastered with horrific images out of Egypt.
The importance of these debates is becoming increasingly obvious. Round one of Kerry versus Bush drew 62.5 million TV viewers - more than any national presidential debate since 1992, when Democratic challenger Bill Clinton took on George Bush's father and the 41st President of the US, George H W Bush.
The vice presidential debate matched the top of the card - 43.6 million viewers watched the John Edwards-Dick Cheney showdown of earlier this week, again the highest in the last 12 years.
And immediately thereafter, the polls swung. Where Bush had leads of between 4-10 percentage points, depending on which pollster you believed (see them
all at www.pollingreport.com), the needle swung dramatically a couple of days after the debate, indicating that once
people had digested not only the debate but the post-debate fact-checking that is an inevitable adjunct of the exercise, they changed their minds about the merits of the two candidates.
Months of stage-managed campaigning are being undermined by 90 minutes of debate. Thus, ahead of last Friday's first presidential debate, Missouri - which Bush had won in 2000 -- was considered a lock for the Bush-Cheney ticket, which enjoyed a 14-point lead there. In the days following the debate, Kerry has, according to a CNN story, wiped out that lead and brought Missouri back into play.
Judged by the last couple of debates, the real movement - and thus, the real judgment of who won today's go-around - will come only over the next couple of days, as newspaper fact-checkers and bloggers get into their act.
But viewed strictly as a 'performance' - which is all these debates are, since there can be no substantive discussion of policy in the space of a minute and a half - you'd have to say Kerry won today's, at Field House, Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Narrowly, this time - but he won. And that keeps the race in play right down to the wire.