Robert Novak

The two candidates had made a deal to avoid cutaway shots while one of them was not speaking. But Fox, the network pool producer, was not in on the deal (and neither were the networks who were not shooting the debates). The candidates should have been aware of that, but did not seem prepared for errant television cameras.

So, when Bush was speaking, Kerry persisted in his annoying habit -- usually exhibited when he is being applauded -- of nodding his head up and down. Bush was much worse. He appeared at his least attractive: smirking, bored, annoyed, looking as though this were the last place in the world he wanted to be. Republican pollster Frank Luntz's focus group of undecided voters were most unhappy with Bush's smirking and his lament that the presidency is such "hard work."

For his part, Kerry persisted in spreading urban legends. He once again claimed that President Bush fired Gen. Eric Shinseki as chief of staff of the U.S. Army because he demanded more troops for Iraq. That is simply not true (as a Kerry military spinner, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, sheepishly admitted after the debate). Kerry insisted that North Korea obtained nuclear arms during the current Bush administration when in fact the breakthrough came under Bill Clinton.

The greater Bush letdown, however, was his failure to fully point up Kerry's inconsistencies on foreign policy -- especially Iraq. He never capitalized on the senator's inability to explain his votes and his past statements.

Can a front-runner really lose the election because of poor debating skills? He might if the debate exposes the candidate's basic flaws. That's why Bush supporters are worried about the town hall debate Friday in St. Louis.

Robert Novak

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

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