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First debate will determine much

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 27, 2004

The first of the presidential debates will be held on September 30th. The Pew Research Center reports that 4 in 10 Americans say they are sure to watch that first debate, which would give it a far greater audience than 4 years ago when the ever-underestimated George W. Bush was believed to have bested the well-known debater V.P. Al Gore.

Debates have a big tradition in presidential politics. They fell into disuse for many years. Their modern-day rival occurred 44 years ago when Democratic nominee Senator John F. Kennedy upstaged V.P. Richard M. Nixon. I say "upstaged" because I was in a car returning from a fairly long trip and I listened to the first debate on the car radio. I thought that Nixon had won the debate. The next morning I was greeted by a six o'clock phone call from the then-chairman of the Racine County, Wisconsin Young Republicans. He was ranting about how badly Nixon had been defeated in that debate and said if Nixon was going to debate like that we may as well concede the election to Kennedy here and now. I didn't understand what he was talking about. I thought Nixon had won the debate. He came unglued. He said he always thought I was a real up-and-coming political type with good judgment, but if I honestly thought Nixon had won then perhaps he needed to reevaluate me. "Didn't you see those dark circles under Nixon's eyes? He looked as if he had just gotten out of bed. And that beard! He looked as if he hadn't shaved in two weeks," my friend said.

I told him I hadn't seen Nixon, that I had only heard him on the radio. That at least absolved me of his reevaluation. Then sure enough, a poll came out that said those who had just listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won by a huge margin. Those who watched the TV debate thought Kennedy had won by an even larger margin.

Returning to this upcoming debate, both candidates have a lot at stake, especially in the first of the series. It seems that viewership trails off after the first of a series of any debate. The public wants to get the sense of what each candidate is really like, which first debate can accomplish. After that, much of the public is content to get highlights presented by the networks or, by now, dozens of websites on both ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, as recently as 4 years ago, the voting public was pretty much at the mercy of the broadcast TV networks to provide them with highlights of the televised debates. This year, not only did the Fox News Network outdraw all the other networks combined on a couple of nights of the GOP Convention but there are so many website "bloggers" that offer opinions and put what was said by both candidates in context, that voters certainly are no longer at the mercy of the declining so-called mainstream media.

Senator John Kerry has been losing ground ever since the Swift Boats for the Truth attacks. Then came the GOP Convention and some better news for the President, who observers in both parties believe holds a 3-5 point lead nationally. More importantly, the President has greatly improved his position in the battleground states. He is leading now, albeit in some cases by just a couple of points, in all but two of the 15 battleground states. Moreover, there are now about five additional states which have become battleground states…all of which Gore won in 2000. In other words, Kerry suddenly and unexpectedly has to fight to maintain his lead in territory that was thought to be his for sure only a few weeks ago. In the end, Kerry may still carry these states but this development has forced the Senator to pull resources from states where he had been challenging President Bush and he used those resources to shore up what had been expected to be key territory.

That first debate will determine a great deal. The first debate will be Kerry's opportunity to look presidential. It will be Kerry's chance to force President Bush to be on the defensive. It will be Kerry's opportunity to try to focus the debate solely on Iraq, where things aren't going terribly well rather than Iraq as a part of the war on terrorism, as President Bush contends it is. The public generally likes George W. Bush more than it likes John Kerry. They think Bush is a nice guy, the sort of fellow with whom you could have a beer, as one poll suggested. They see Kerry as aloof, rather dour and not somebody they could relate to. Not that many ordinary folks go windsurfing, I guess. Of course, this also will be Kerry's chance to show a more likeable side.

First debate will determine much
The debate that killed Al Gore

In the past, against Governor Ann Richards of Texas, and then against Gore, Bush was greatly underestimated and as a consequence, he won these debates. Against Kerry it could well be a different matter. Kerry is perhaps one of the best political debaters in the entire nation. Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, while not my cup of tea as a Republican, is nevertheless a skilled debater himself. Weld was leading Kerry in their race for the U.S. Senate until the series of debates toward the end of the campaign put Weld behind. He never recovered. The reason? Kerry absolutely ran circles around Weld. He made Weld look foolish at times and flustered at other times. This is not widely known. As a result it will be Kerry who will be underestimated unless the President can keep the focus on his message and unless he can force Kerry to defend his record in the U.S. Senate. Kerry will jump to and fro and by the time Bush reacts to a statement Kerry has made, Kerry will be on to something else a mile away.

It is customary for candidates on both sides to do mock debates. Someone will role-play in a mock debate with each candidate. All I can say is, whoever role-plays Kerry had better be really good. Karl Rove, the President's Political Advisor, has looked at the tapes of the Weld-Kerry debates. He well understands how tough Kerry will be.

While Kerry has many opportunities in this debate, so does the President. If the President can portray Kerry to be the unrelenting pessimist that he is; if he can show Kerry has always been a part of the "blame America first crowd" and if he then focuses on Kerry's almost completely negative record in the U.S. Senate, he can put away this election, solidify his lead in the battleground states and he can win a decisive victory. If he fails to do these things, this election will tighten again and we will be in for another all-night nail-biter as we had in 2000.

Rove believes that the President will not only be reelected, but will carry in a number of GOP Senators with him so that in a new Senate we will be looking at 53 or 54 GOP Senators…probably enough to break the deadlock on judges in the Senate. Whether or not he is able to do just that will depend in large measure upon how he does in that first debate.

Does anyone know the real meaning of the word pressure?

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Who should hold the debates? by Bruce Walker (September 20, 2004)
    A war that happened thirty years ago seems to be the most important issue this election year. Bruce Walker says if that's the case he knows who should sponsor a few debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush
  • Bush weak in the face of Gore attacks by W. James Antle III (October 9, 2000)
    Whatever the reason was for Dubya's performance during the first debate, W. James Antle III wasn't too pleased with it
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