A Newsweek poll immediately after the debate gave Kerry a two-point lead. A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll says Bush is ahead by two points. An ABC News tracking poll gave Bush a five-point lead. The latest Pew poll shows Bush ahead by seven points. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll of registered voters shows the race a dead heat.
I walked away from the first presidential debate feeling like it was net bad for President Bush, but not the knockout punch Kerry needed. Why? Where did President Bush go wrong? And what has Kerry left to do?
First, the debate was dominated by the war on Iraq, which meant it was not dominated by the war on terror. I'm not sure if President Bush could have turned that around, given the questions that were asked, but he didn't seem to try very hard either.
Second, President Bush forgot the lessons of Zell Miller: Women (the majority of swing voters) like big, strong, tough stuff from men, as long as it comes from men devoted to protecting them and their children. Men often forget this. War and love aren't necessarily connected categories in the male brain, and women know this all too well. In his book "Men and Marriage," George Gilder wrote:
The crucial process of civilization is the subordination of male sexual impulses and biology to the long-term horizons of female sexuality. ... Men lust, but they know not what for; they wander, and lose track of the goal; they fight and compete, but they forget the prize; they spread seed, but spurn the seasons of growth; they chase power and glory, but miss the meaning of life.
For women, male strength and aggression are both the problem and the solution. It can be reassuring, or it can be scary. President Bush made clear that he is a strong, decisive fighting man, but which kind of fighting man? Is he the kind who solves women's troubles or the kind who causes them? In the debate (unlike his convention speech), President Bush dropped the subtle rhetorical gestures designed to reassure women he is the kind of man who remembers why he is fighting and for whom.
Third, Bush broke the cardinal rule of television: Never let them see you sweat. I had more sympathy for the smirks, the tics, the facial gestures than most swing voters apparently did because I shared the underlying emotion that caused them: not anger. Not defensiveness. Exasperation. And disgust.
What got to Bush? Here's what I think: It was not the brilliance of Kerry's debating tactics but the absurdity of the essence of the new Kerry position: The war on Iraq is an easy thing. The reason bad things are happening is Bush is bungling.
Give that man a wand and slap a pair of wings on his back: John Kerry is running for fairy godmother! Our allies are opposed to the war? A swoosh of the Kerry wand and President Kerry will have the French and Germans rushing to our rescue in no time. Iraq needs a new army to defend itself? Zap bing -- the Kerry touch will make training an Iraqi army faster and easier. Al-Qaida and other terrorists are pouring over the border to join the fight? When Kerry is elected, the guerrilla insurgency will magically disappear. A summit? How brilliant! Why didn't President Bush think of that?
Overthrow Saddam Hussein with less than 1,000 casualties and build a free, democratic ally to help us fight terror in the Middle East? Oh, that's easy. Or such is the Kerry promise.
Bush had trouble believing what he was hearing. And so, ultimately, I think will a lot of other Americans.