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Archive for Saturday, October 2, 2004

Kerry emphasizes Bush’s bad debate body language

October 2, 2004

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— Sen. John Kerry hopes the lasting image of the first debate is President Bush's pique performance: a flourish of fidgets, glares and grimaces. The Republican incumbent plans to turn the tables with fresh attacks.

As both campaigns raced to shape and then cement perceptions about what happened before the eyes of 62.5 million television viewers, some Republicans said they feared Bush had given new life to an embattled foe.

A poster boy for bad body language, Bush rolled his eyes as Kerry criticized him on Iraq, pursed his lips, wagged his finger and looked away, seemingly in disgust. The president's team all but conceded that their boss had lost the debate on style points, but they sought a longer-lasting victory on substance.

With a heaping of faint praise for his boss, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said, "This debate comes down to, do you want a president who says the right thing or do you want a president who does the right thing?"

Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, said the night proved that Kerry was "arguably the better debater of the two." But he also said there was a history of candidates losing the first debate and winning the election.

"People don't view these things in a vacuum," Rove said.

That's why both campaigns are seeking to shape people's second and third impressions of the debate. They rushed commercials into production, dispatched surrogates across the country and fed their candidates with new lines of attack.

"The best of these debates all have moments," said Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart. "This is one of those moments."

It was not clear how much, if at all, the debate had helped Kerry. Instant polls suggested that viewers clearly considered him the winner, but their voting preferences for Nov. 2 did not appear to change.

President Bush greets the crowd in Allentown, Pa., the day after
his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

President Bush greets the crowd in Allentown, Pa., the day after his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Several uncommitted, or "persuadable" voters interviewed by The Associated Press said Kerry performed well in the debates and Bush appeared to struggle with some of his answers. Yet some also said Kerry still needed to provide more specifics about his plans for Iraq.

"I found Kerry's statements were more accurate," said Alta Brandon, a Republican retiree from Kingwood, Texas, near Houston. "I really felt sorry for Bush, he became a little agitated and uneasy in his reactions to Kerry. He didn't show self-control."

Republicans criticized Bush. Or praised Kerry. They had words of warning for the White House.

"I was pretty disappointed," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "I think the president had the opportunity to articulate why we're in Iraq and what we need to do, and I think he got distracted. He's a very good man, a decent man, I think he just needs to relax."

Sen. John McCain, one of the nation's most popular politicians and chairman of Bush's campaign in Arizona, said the debate was probably Kerry's "brightest moment" in the past six weeks. McCain, who considers the fellow Vietnam veteran a friend, said, "Kerry came out slugging."

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., holds
Faith Sutton, 2, at the conclusion of a rally in Kissimmee, Fla.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., holds Faith Sutton, 2, at the conclusion of a rally in Kissimmee, Fla.

Republican consultant Joe Gaylord said Kerry "did a great job defending the indefensible: his positions on Iraq."

He said voters lost to Bush in the debate should quickly drift back, but the debate "has given Kerry an opening to get people to take another look at him."

Aides to both candidates noted that then-Vice President Al Gore topped Bush in the instant polls following their first debate in 2000, then quickly lost ground as Republicans pummeled him over alleged inconsistencies in his debate statements.

Kerry's advisers said Bush reminded them of his father, the former president, who was caught glancing at his watch in a 1992 presidential debate. Critics said he looked out of touch.

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