Robert Novak

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Depression among Democrats had reached new depths when the presidential candidates faced off Thursday night at the University of Miami. An hour and a half later, they were elated that John Kerry's candidacy had been saved. But none of the Democratic candidate's shortcomings really had been corrected.

Rather, the rise in Democratic spirits can be attributed to George W. Bush's defects in the first presidential debate. His stylistic deficiencies as a candidate in 2000, it turns out, have not been remedied. He was anything but relentless in exploiting his opponent's multiple weaknesses.

The gap in performance here between President Bush and Sen. Kerry hardly seemed wide enough to reverse the popular tide that had been flowing in the president's direction. Nevertheless, it was enough to still the exuberant optimism in Republican ranks. With two more debates and a month to go before the election, Bush has serious problems to solve.

At 9 o'clock last Thursday night, all the problems seemed to be Kerry's. His performance on ABC's "Good Morning America" Wednesday appalled ardent Democrats. "It depends," the senator replied when asked whether getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth it. He explained his ridiculous statement that he had actually voted both for and against the $87 billion to finance the Iraq war by saying he was tired at night late in the primary season. In fact, he spoke at a mid-day event after the primary contests had ended. Democrats wondered whether that was the best Kerry could do after six days of debate preparation.

These Democrats were not satisfied by the explanation from Kerry strategists that the senator did not want to use his best lines. Actually, his lines on Thursday were not memorable while avoiding the embarrassment of the previous morning. But the real reason for long Republican faces since the debate and Democratic glee was George W. Bush.

By 10:30 p.m. Thursday, the mood had changed abruptly. It was Republicans across the country who were depressed and panicky.

Many presidential debates are won on image rather than substance, as shown by the triumphs of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Republican inner circles have been grumbling for months about Bush's reluctance to take questions even from his own supporters. On occasion, he has seemed bored and petulant. Those characteristics were on display before the nation last week here.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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