I agree with Bill Bennett's description of the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, which centered on foreign policy, the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism: "John Kerry won the debate, but President Bush won the argument."
Winning the argument, however, is not enough since by losing the debate the race has tightened considerably. The good news for Bush is that former presidents have a long history of losing their first debate but coming back to win the election - Reagan against Mondale, Bush senior against Dukakis, Clinton against Perot and Bush senior.
The not-so-good news for George W. Bush is that on domestic policy, on which the next two debates will focus and where the president clearly has the better case, Sen. Kerry still seems to be winning the argument in the minds of the American people, if one can believe the polls.
According to pollster John Zogby, "Only 16 percent to 20 percent of undecided voters (which he places at no more than about 6 million people nationwide) feel that the president deserves to be re-elected." Zogby finds that while undecided voters "agree with President Bush on values, leadership, the war on terror and likability, they prefer Mr. Kerry on the economy, health care, the war (in Iraq) and education."
The most recent Newsweek poll (conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2), which showed the candidates' foreign-policy debate performances erased a 7 percentage-point Bush advantage and vaulted Kerry into a 3-point lead, scores the senator even better against the president on the economy (52 percent vs. 39 percent); health care, including Medicare (56 percent to 34 percent); and American jobs and foreign competition (54 percent vs. 36 percent).
So winning the second and third debates is necessary but not sufficient if Bush is to win in November. He also has to win the argument, and it will take more than brushed-up debating skills to do so. It will also require a sharply honed presentation of economic substance to change the minds of those skeptical undecided voters predisposed against him.
The key to the president's winning both the debate and the argument on pocketbook issues is for him to lay out in a simple, straightforward fashion how his tax policies are fostering economic growth and prosperity and why Kerry's obsession with class warfare will create economic hardship for the middle class and erect roadblocks to entry into the middle class for poor people. He could start by explaining that whenever politicians aim at the rich, they always hit the middle class and crush the poor.