Ninety Minutes Later, A New Race

The Wellness Center at the University of Miami last Thursday night was a tale of two curtained-off racquetball courts--one eerily silent, the other growing noisier by the minute. In George W. Bush's makeshift "staff hold," you could hear a pin drop as senior aides watched the president slog through 90 minutes in the ring of a televised debate with Sen. John Kerry. Karl Rove, the consigliere who built Bush's career from day one, was upbeat, declaring that Bush was displaying toughness on the war on terror and compassion for the growing casualties in Iraq. But few others in the room had anything to say. The action was left to a table of "oppo" guys--led by a fellow with the nickname "Bullet"--who were busily grinding out mid-debate press releases attacking Kerry, often in ways the president himself was failing to do onstage. With 15 minutes left in the debate, silence became unease. "We heard that Kerry's people were in the spin room crowing," a Bush adviser said later. "That was disconcerting."

As well it should have been. In the Kerry racquetball court, there were cheers and mounting excitement. Their candidate was winning on style, standing ramrod straight, speaking with ease and assurance, looking plausibly presidential. Bush, by contrast, sometimes looked peeved and impatient in the split screen, his features wrinkled into a smirk. Kerryites exchanged high-fives when their man uncorked a much-rehearsed defense of his vote against funding for the war in Iraq. And they were in ecstasy when he cleverly interpreted in strictly literal fashion Bush's statement that the war in Iraq had been launched in response to 9/11. "Saddam Hussein did not attack us, Osama bin Laden attacked us," intoned the senator--shocked, shocked. The unrehearsed move produced a devastatingly theatrical moment. Exasperated, Bush could only sputter: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that." By the time grim-looking Bush aides marched into "Spin Alley," Kerry's team indeed were declaring victory.

With good reason. Debates don't always shake up a presidential race, but this one did--and there are two more, plus a vice presidential debate yet to come. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Bush's 49-43 percent lead in a three-way race has been erased, with Kerry now ahead 47-45 percent. Electoral politics is a game of comparison, and the first appearance of the two men side by side--one having a good night, the other a bad one--did wonders for Kerry's image. His "favorable/ unfavorable" rating, last month a tepid 48-44 percent, rose to 52-40 (while Bush's dropped from 52-44 to 49-46). A whopping 63 million voters watched the Miami de-bate, and Kerry was scored the winner by 61 percent of them; only 19 percent thought Bush had won. Among viewers, Kerry overwhelmingly was regarded as the better informed and more self-assured. More ominously for Bush, Kerry was seen as the stronger leader onstage (47-44 percent)--and even as the more likable guy (47-41 percent). Bush aides privately had to admit that it was a race again, understating the obvious.

Triumphant moments often fade quickly but, as in Iowa last winter, Kerry had fought his way off the ropes. This time he did it against a president who looked unprepared for battle, advised by overconfident aides who were twirling cigars on the eve of the debate at a bar in South Beach. With pride, the president suggested that he deserved re-election primarily for his personal strength--but, at least last Thursday night, Kerry was seen as the strong character. And while Bush contended that liberty would bring tranquillity to the planet, he was unable to make that claim with the kind of inspiring rhetoric and detail he offers in the melodious speeches crafted by his speechwriters.

As for Kerry, there remain holes in his foreign-policy record, and Bush pointed some of them out. Which nations, the president wanted to know, would join a new coalition to fight a war in Iraq that Kerry now calls a mistake and a diversion? Does Kerry really want the United States to pass a "global test" before launching a pre-emptive strike? For the most part, however, Bush seemed unable to box Kerry in, leaving the senator free to argue that he never would have gone to war in Iraq--a flat-out antiwar position that is only a few weeks old--while still insisting that he is better qualified to lead American troops to victory and to protect the American homeland.

Republicans use Kerry's love of windsurfing as a metaphor for weakness of character. But in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Kerry has tacked to the popular position--especially with Democrats who had been lukewarm to his candidacy until now. Last month he used two lofty speeches on foreign policy to maneuver himself out of a statement he had made only a month earlier--that, even knowing there were no WMD in Iraq, he still would have voted for the Senate resolution authorizing the president to use force there. Then, last week in Miami, Kerry said that the right response to Saddam Hussein would have been to tie him down with inspectors--Howard Dean's position of a year ago. Even more boldly, the senator defended his vote against the $87 billion funding bill as a form of principled protest. "The base wants an antiwar candidate," says Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant who worked on Kerry's Senate campaigns.

Now, as the debates move on to the ground of domestic and tax issues, Kerry strategists are hoping to outflank Bush from the opposite direction, arguing that three years and $2 trillion worth of tax cuts have left the country without enough money to fight the war in Iraq properly--or to defend the ports, roads, airports and borders from terrorists. Kerry advocates a "rollback" in the tax cuts for those earning $200,000 or more--and is planning to portray Bush's defense of the well-off as a threat to national security. The president obliged the Kerry team by raising the topic of taxes in the debate, implying that Kerry's homeland proposals would bust the budget. That was Bush's "biggest gaffe," said Kerry aide Michael McCurry. Kerry jumped right on it in the give-and-take. "We didn't need that tax cut," he said. "America needed to be safe."

The roots of Kerry's Miami victory reach deeper than war news and his own wiliness. Even as they tried to lower expectations, his inner circle couldn't escape the sense of certainty--expressed as early as last summer on Nantucket--that their guy would win the confrontations. He curbed his habit of calling all manner of friends and advisers, limiting his contact to a small circle led by debate briefer Ron Klain, traveling aide John Sasso and speechwriter (and former collegiate debating champion) Bob Shrum. They gathered for practice in an aluminum shed on the House on the Rock Resort in rural Wisconsin. Ever the serious student, Kerry staged four mock debates at night in recent weeks, videotaping his performances and timing himself with a stopwatch. He carried a set of huge briefing books with him, methodically studying the material.

The emphasis wasn't on substance--the man knew it cold--but on brevity. After each mock debate (Washington lawyer Greg Craig played George Bush), Kerry would sit on the edge of the stage, analyze his performance and hone his answers. Kerry's aides were so confident that they had schooled him in concision that they used his reputation as a windbag to play--and win--an expectations game on debate day. They say they circulated a bogus rumor: they were upset about warning lights on the podiums, fearing their blabbermouth candidate would be bathed in flashing red. In the end, it was Bush--not Kerry--who ran afoul of the strict time limits and earned a blinking light.

The attitude in the president's camp, by contrast, had been comparatively nonchalant, stemming from the mistaken belief that the spotlight would rest only on Kerry--and that Bush was playing a home game on the topic of the first debate, defense and foreign policy. The president's predebate schedule was filled with other matters, including a visit to Florida hurricane victims the morning of the showdown. He also managed to do some biking and fishing--both because he enjoys those sports and because his advisers wanted to demonstrate Bush's confidence in his own views. "He knows his positions," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director said. "You don't have to memorize something you believe in."

But belief alone wasn't enough to carry him through the debate--or the hurricane of critical spin after it. An impatient character, Bush kept shifting his weight and sipping water. He sometimes scribbled notes so furiously with an oversize Sharpie pen that photographers in the wings could hear it squeaking. While briefed on main points--he had listened to audiotapes of Kerry--Bush made more assertions than detailed accusations. Republicans fretted afterward that he had been overcoached, stifling his genial personality.

He harped on the notion that Kerry was a flip-flopper, which may be true but which the press corps--primed for news--had heard before. And, ironically, Bush was hurt--and Kerry was helped--by the stifling rules the Bush campaign had insisted on. The president needed to directly confront Kerry, but couldn't. Although the president knew the networks wouldn't follow the rules--and would show "reaction shots" of each candidate as the other spoke--he couldn't find a way to look calm and collected when he wasn't speaking. After being blown about in the spin room, Republicans concluded that they had underestimated the press corps's eagerness to see a close race, and they worried that reporters had awarded points to Kerry because they approve of his now clear antagonism toward the war.

Where does the battle go from here, this week and next? In the vice presidential debate in Cleveland, and in the second Bush-Kerry face-off in St. Louis, both sides expect the attention to turn to Kerry's 19-year-long voting record in the Senate. It's replete with evidence of classic Massachusetts liberalism, despite the senator's occasional forays into Clinton-style moderation. "It does concern me that someone who has been in the U.S. Senate for a number of years has to run with this record of his," says a member of Kerry's inner circle. Backers concede he will have to deal with the liberal label. How? "The same way I did," said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, traveling with Kerry late last week. "He's gotta keep asking the questions: Is it too liberal to vote to save the environment? Is it too liberal for a balanced budget... or stem-cell research?"

The Bush-Cheney campaign is on to that case, with Ken Mehlman, the campaign chairman, saying Kerry has made a "career of raising taxes." Meanwhile, BC04 is amplifying attacks the president made, and launching ones he missed, including a new ad accusing Kerry of ceding sovereignty over military affairs to a "global test" of foreign nations including--heaven forbid--France. (Kerry forces are answering, running ads claiming Bush is distorting Kerry's comment.) The president himself picked up the same refrain, and can be expected to use the "town hall" format in St. Louis to raise the subject again. Kerry advisers also expect to see some tougher, and more personal, attacks from beyond the official precincts of the Bush campaign. They know what Bush allies did to John McCain in South Carolina in 2000. "They are going to come after John Kerry with some nasty stuff," predicted one Kerry aide.

But none of that was on their minds in Miami in the wee hours of the night following the debate at UM. In the bar at the Sheraton Bal Harbour, where the entourage was staying, they drank their vodka neat and told war stories--about their come-from-behind win in the Iowa caucuses last winter. Rounds of applause broke out when Klain, the debate briefer, arrived. Campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who has taken her share of heat, was grinning ear to ear. What was the secret of success, Klain was asked. "Practice, practice, practice," he said, laughing. Yes, discipline counted--and not losing focus. Over at the Bush campaign, where they vowed to make the boss prepare more thoroughly, they apparently had gotten the message. The Bush team was at the Four Seasons, but no one was in the bar. They had gone to bed.