Bush backers have cause for worry

Robert Novak

10/4/2004 12:00:00 AM - 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.

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.