I just got back from watching the debate and I wanted to get my impressions down before reading what anyone else has to say.
Overall, I think the night went a tiny bit better for Kerry than for Bush, although neither candidate was greatly helped or hurt. Neither of them said anything that was greatly different from what he has said before, so neither broke new ground or committed major gaffes. The slight advantage to Kerry was that he pointed out a few facts that many people did not know that reflect badly on Bush. Also, the format allowed Kerry to project a more forceful and consistent image than the race so far has afforded him.
But, on balance, both men said things they have said before in the way they have said them before. If you thought Bush was a plainspoken man of the people before the debate, you still do; and if you thought he was a dimwitted simian who can't string an answer together for two minutes, nothing tonight disabused you of that opinion. If you thought Kerry was an aloof French-looking pointy-headed intellectual, you still think so; and if you thought Kerry was a seasoned, highly intelligent statesmen, your opinion is probably still in place.
One thing to get out of the way: whoever was working the cameras tonight was totally, completely unfair to Bush. I thought the deal was to show no reaction shots. Instead, there were at least a half-dozen shots of Bush looking his worst: scowling and frowning like a scolded 12-year-old as Kerry spoke. Bush looked worse in general (and I know it's incredibly shallow, but we're dealing with the shallow 25% of the electorate who care about this shit) because he leans on the podium and over it, like he can't stand up straight without help, emphasizing his moonish face and protruding ears. Kerry, on the other hand, looks like someone who could take you on in almost any sport. Okay, enough with the looks.
On talking about the issues, neither guy really covered himself in glory. If I have to hear either of their catch phrases ever again, it will be too soon. Bush knows its tough, but he also knows good people. Kerry wants to bring them to the table.
Kerry was lofted a couple of softballs which he hit, but he should have smacked them out of the park. For example, he was asked what he would do specifically to improve homeland security. He should have had a list of specific program recommendations he could just rattle off, each of which ending with, "which the President is doing nothing about now." Instead, he tried to make a narrative of it, to counter Bush's repeated assertion of "mixed messages." Eventually, he got back on track, but it could have been much more forceful. He was asked whether pre-emptive war was ever justified. He should have had a snappy, 40 word answer on that, but instead he rambled a bit.
Kerry's advantage was the factual points he raised that many people either have not heard much about or may not have heard at all: Troops going in without body armor, the unarmored Humvees, 95% of containers not inspected, 13 years to secure Russia's 600+ tons of nuclear material, and 100,000 hours of tapes untranslated by the FBI.
Bush, on the other hand, couldn't come back with specifics. His most ridiculous moment was re-asserting that all our problems in Iraq were due to us winning too fast; he sounded just like the job candidate who, when asked what his greatest weakness is, says he works too hard. Bush also claimed that 125,000 Iraqis have been trained in security positions. The actual number of trained personnel is smaller, and the number of the competent, well-armed, well-led, loyal ones are even smaller still.
In terms of their speaking styles and manner, it's hard for me to judge, because I so loathe Bush. His stammering, his meandering nonsequitor style, his inability to come up with facts, his repeating and repeating of the same catch phrases over and over again incessantly makes me want to laugh, or cry, or both. This man leads this country? Kerry was slightly better than I expected; maybe the format and his preparation helped, but he needs to get better still for next time. Bush will never eat him alive, it is clear, but Kerry should be able to land more blows. I would like to see him be punchier, more sound bite-sized, and more passionate. I think he'd make a good, even great President, but he needs to inspire some followership. I'd listen to John Kerry, and obviously I think he'd be good in charge, but he's not one to rev people up. Bush, on the other hand, I wouldn't hire on a bet and I doubt I would even want to stay in the same room with. His voice is like audible alcohol poisoning. I can feel my brain cells dying whenever he talks.
And I also have to say that Jim Lehrer did a good job of refereeing the debate. He effaced himself, rather than inserting himself, while actually guiding the conversation and trying to illuminate where the two agreed and where they didn't. I have lower hopes for the next two.
As for the polls, who the hell knows. I can't see anyone whose mind was made up changing it based on tonight, and the undecideds will lean a little more Kerry, but there will be no big shifts. The (relatively accurate, unbiased) poll will still be a dead heat.
Update: I realize now from reading other coverage that each network used different camera work. ABC, for example, appears to have used a split screen. So, I guess all bets were off. The split screen didn't seem to make Bush look any better, however.
More: Best live blogged comment of the night from Sinfonian at Blast Off!: "Boy, the pregnant pauses are getting distracting. Maybe the hamsters are getting tired up there."
Less: Did anyone else notice that Bush tried not to even look at Kerry when they shook hands before and after, while Kerry pulled Bush in by the hand and said something to him both times? If I had to guess, that would be Kerry trying to establish some kind of personal dominance over Bush, who he sees as a weak character. Bush knows Kerry will have something to say to him at the beginning of the next debate, too.
Much more: The good Roger Ailes: "'The enemy only has to be right 1 percent of the time.' So we install Bush as the head of Al Qaeda."