After this evening's presidential debate, it is clear that the Kerry campaign has at last succumbed to the influx of former Clinton advisors. Kerry's talking points were taken verbatim from Clinton's 1992 campaign against George W. Bush's father. Remember the three principles from Carville's war room?
Change vs. more of the same
It's the economy, stupid!
Don't forget health care
To make a church analogy, after 12 years, the message is the same, only the methodology has changed. Kerry rarely wavered from this script. Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that in terms of connecting with people and their daily struggles, John Kerry is no Bill Clinton.
As the conventional wisdom has already declared, this debate was less entertaining and less confrontational than the first two and most likely a draw (though your political leanings will tip the scales one way or another). I would expect that many people failed to pay attention to the entire 90 minutes, especially after a uneventful beginning.
Bob Schieffer surprised everyone by starting the domestic policy debate with a question about safety and security in respect to terrorism. The candidates gave fairly standard answers, though Bush quickly referenced Kerry's nuisance comment from last week. If your mind wandered for a bit, you would be confused to hear the candidates in their next breath discussing a flu shot shortage. Overall, I thought Schieffer did not allow the debate to flow logically from topic to topic and also asked Kerry too many weak questions, such as "Will you raise the minimum wage?" and "Will you make it a priority to bring the country back together?"
Kerry struck me as tired and listless in this debate. Both candidates made a number of strong statements ("I never said I'm not worried about Osama! That's one of your exaggersations." and "I am not proposing a government-run health care program.") and will surely find themselves haunted by the ghosts of campaign future. Kerry's strongest moment was in answering the minimum wage question, where he focused exclusively on women. He even borrowed another great Clinton line, referring to those who "work hard and play by the rules." His answer on the lapsed assault weapons ban was also forceful, attacking Bush for a failure of presidential leadership.
The minimum wage answer corresponded with a recurring Bush failure. Clearly the Bush campaign decided before the debates began that the best way to respond to any job-related question is with education and the No Child Left Behind act. The campaign must understand that those consistent responses (evasions?) do nothing for the many Americans who are currently struggling in the workplace or are looking for work. After four debates, the answer begins to look silly.
I have to give the president credit, however, for resisting the obvious school-yard taunt when Kerry made two more references to everyone's favorite Republican: "If you like John McCain so much, why didn't you make him your running mate? Oh wait, you tried, and he turned you down!
I thought Bush was strong, clear, and energetic throughout. He at last brought up Kerry's opposition to the first Gulf War: "Apparently you can't pass any test under his vision of the world." He gave a terrific answer to a faith question, referring to "calmness in the storms of the presidency."
Bush's greatest moment of the debate came at the conclusion, which many people may not ever see. Schieffer asked, "What is the most important thing you've learned from the strong women in your life?"
For the next two minutes, Bush was everything American's want, personally, in a president. He was comfortable, at peace, humble and humorous.
First answer: "To listen to them."
Second answer: "To stand up straight and not scowl."
The audience laughed loudly at each. He then spoke about the First Lady, made fun of his language speaking abilities, and closed with a perfect story about meeting Laura for the first time: "Not only did she interest me, it was love at first sight."
Kerry did his best, but this is one area where he simply cannot compete with the President.
Four debates without a single defining moment or gaffe, leaving us with both the popular vote and electoral college perfecty tied. By next Tuesday, the weekend poll numbers will be in and only two weeks will remain. Your guess is as good as mine.