Try listening on the radio to the final presidential debate for a different perspective. Then read the transcript. Only after that, watch a rerun on television. That's what I did for the second debate between Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush. My impression was starkly different from what it would have been had I only watched TV.
Listening and reading summon different senses. These focus more on the content of the answers than on appearance and debating styles, neither of which has anything to do with policy.
My impression from radio and the transcript was that President Bush was much more credible and substantive than Sen. Kerry. A Gallup poll found the same reaction among 515 registered voters it surveyed, even though most of these people probably watched the debate on TV. Before the debate, these voters favored Kerry on Iraq by a 50 percent to 46 percent margin. After the debate, there was a significant switch in the president's favor, with 53 percent supporting Bush and 46 percent supporting Kerry.
The president's support on fighting terrorism increased from a pre-debate 52 percent to a post-debate 56 percent. Kerry's support dropped from a pre-debate 45 percent to a post-debate 39 percent. Equally significant are Gallup's findings on which man voters thought "demonstrated he is tough enough for the job." Forty percent believed Kerry demonstrated he is tough enough, while 53 percent said Bush demonstrated he is tougher.
Kerry also suffered from a "who was more believable?" deficit; forty-five percent thought it was Kerry, but 49 percent thought it was Bush. Kerry trailed Bush on "likeability," and Kerry was barely behind Bush on "agreed with you more on the issues you care about." Kerry led Bush by a wide margin on "expressed himself more clearly," a superficial measurement unrelated to core beliefs.
Kerry's believability deficit can be attributed not just to his favoring political pragmatism over convictions, but also to his often haughty style and his penchant for pandering to voters. When an issue suits Kerry and seems popular in the polls, he's for it. When public opinion shifts, he's against it and tries to convince you he always held whatever position a majority may now hold. He mimics Bill Clinton's tactics. The trouble with this strategy, as President Bush noted, is that Kerry has a Senate record.
A telling example of Kerry's problem is the issue of his political philosophy. Kerry doesn't want to be tagged as a "liberal," the label Bush's father used to bury Michael Dukakis in 1988. But the president wouldn't let Kerry escape the label, noting that National Journal has called him the most liberal member of the Senate.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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