Who?s the Winner?

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Oct 01, 2004 12:00 AM

 Occasionally, a sports reporter will be accused of ?writing his lead on the way to the ballpark.? After all, why wait until the game begins to declare a winner? In that vein, it?s worth asking why ABC even made George Stephanopoulos come in on to cover Thursday?s presidential debate.

 ?Well, certainly I think Senator Kerry has momentum coming out of here. He?ll come out of here and say, ?Listen, the American people agreed with what I had to say last night, they thought I did a good job,? and he?s got five more weeks to argue his case,? Stephanopoulos announced afterward.

Of course, the former Clinton communications director could have scripted that statement hours before the debate. It?s safe to say that even if Sen. Kerry had walked out with his face orange and his fly undone, Stephanopoulos would have claimed he ?has momentum? coming out of the debate. The media, after all, want a close horse race to cover. In reality, Kerry was behind in the polls, and remains behind. If you were running for president, is that the position you?d prefer?

 This doesn?t change the fact that Kerry ?won? the debate. But the question that the spinmeisters miss is: ?Did this help him??

 Americans don?t vote for ?debater-in-chief.? They vote for commander-in-chief. Another ABC News star, anchor Peter Jennings, doesn?t understand that. Jennings put up two instant polls, one that showed viewers thought Kerry had won the debate (45 percent to 36 percent for President Bush). Then, Jennings pointed out that the same sample showed no change in voter?s preference -- even with the ?loss,? Bush maintained his four-point lead. Jennings called that a symbol of American?s ?rigidity.? At least Jennings didn?t accuse us of throwing a ?temper tantrum,? as he did when voters tossed out the Democratic House of Representatives back in 1994.

 Bush held on to voters because he stayed on his message. He sees the war in Iraq as a vital front in the war against terrorists. ?We are facing a group of folks who have such hatred in their hearts, they?ll strike anywhere with any means,? the president said. ?The biggest disaster that could happen is that we not succeed in Iraq.?
Many Americans agree with this, and many disagree. Of course, those who?ve already decided that the war in Iraq wasn?t worth fighting were already going to vote against the president, so there was no point in even attempting to reach them. The president held on to his base, and probably even expanded it somewhat.

 For example, when Kerry called Iraq ?a mistake of judgment? and said he?d bring in more allies, Bush?s response was withering. ?What?s the message [to our allies] going to be: ?Please join us in Iraq. We?re a grand diversion. Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time??? And that?s Kerry?s long-term problem. Bush can say over and over that the war in Iraq was critical, and that we must win. You can disagree, but it?s at least an intellectually defensible position.

 Kerry says the war was a mistake, claims we were mislead, calls it a diversion. Then he insists, ?we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we?re there. We have to succeed. We can?t leave a failed Iraq.? But if the war was indeed wrong, and is indeed wrong, then we must pull out. It doesn?t make logical sense to insist that we?ll fight on to win ?the wrong war.?

 All intellectual and logical quibbles aside, the president probably won the election with his responses to two questions.
When moderator Jim Lehrer asked if Iraq has been worth the cost in American lives, Bush showed real emotion. The candidate who?s supposedly so inarticulate painted a moving picture with his words, explaining his painful meeting with war widow Missy Johnson. ?I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband?s sacrifice was noble and worthy. Because I understand the stakes of this war on terror,? Bush said. This moment surely reached some of those wavering ?Soccer Moms? who?ve been wondering if the war in Iraq was really just a war for Halliburton, as they?ve been told so often by Michael Moore and others on the left.

 Later, when Lehrer invited Bush to assassinate Sen. Kerry?s character, the president passed. Instead, he noted that, ?I admire Senator Kerry's service to our country. I admire the fact that he is a great dad. I appreciate the fact that his daughters have been so kind to my daughters.? Kerry responded with nice words of his own. But the message had been sent -- Bush is a real person, not some soul-less ogre who wants to invade and conquer every other nation.

 The candidates also clashed over North Korea, and in weeks to come they?ll cross swords over the economy, jobs, growth and more. If he stays on message, Bush may ?lose? those debates as well. But he?ll be in position to win in November.