Trail Mix: 'Sparks of Life'

It's never easy to declare the winner of a TV debate. But the contest in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday scored some striking successes all the same. Not least, the debate showed sparks of life--and insights into both candidates--that nobody anticipated. Here's a rough guide to the highs and lows of both George W. Bush and John Kerry at their first encounter.

Bush: the Highs

Bush showed some of his much-vaunted compassion when he spoke about Missy Johnson, the wife of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. For a rare moment in the debate, Bush dropped his personal attacks on Kerry to talk about something much more human. "I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy," Bush said. The president's aides have long said that he's much more likable and personable than his rival. The anecdote about Johnson gave voters the best glimpse of that personal touch that Bush is famous for--a quality he exhibited again when he praised Kerry as a father, and thanked Kerry's daughters for reaching out to the Bush twins.

Bush also displayed an emphatic, podium-thumping approach to winning the war against terrorists. "The best way to defeat them is to never waver, to be strong, to use every asset at our disposal, is to constantly stay on the offensive and, at the same time, spread liberty," Bush said at the outset. It's that kind of clarity that gave Bush his best moment on Iraq, in saying without equivocation that "the world is safer without Saddam Hussein."

Bush: the Lows

The president was killed by a thousand cutaways. The cameras showed a testy, uncomfortable president under the blows from Kerry. The pursed lips, the dismissive glances, the stuttering, frowning responses: they were almost like Al Gore in 2000. If Bush was hoping to show his optimistic side, he missed his goal. It wasn't just the body language. Bush's strategy was to repeat his campaign's attack ads, but the effect was to make him look aggressive and negative. That's a world away from the charismatic president his aides had hoped for. Just last week, Bush's advisers believed the TV debates would show Bush at his most likable and Kerry at his most dislikable. Bush barely showed his most congenial side on Thursday night.

When Bush wasn't looking touchy, he sometimes looked startled. Kerry jumped on Bush for saying he invaded Iraq because "the enemy attacked us," pointing out it was Osama bin Laden who attacked the United States, not Hussein. Bush's response? "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us," the president said defensively. "I know that." Not very presidential.

Bush also lapsed into something that is rarely associated with him: Washingtonspeak. He talked about a "supplemental." He prided himself on his "multipronged" approach to terrorism, and his international summits. He even waded into the realm of international treaties, disappearing down a blind alley on the International Criminal Court. Such obscurities were once thought to be Kerry's domain, but Bush showed he was less of the regular guy he portrayed in 2000.

Kerry: the Highs

Expectations were so low about Kerry that it was relatively easy for him to surpass them. After watching his character get trashed for months on the campaign trail, Kerry looked and sounded a world away from the verbose, weak-willed caricature that has dogged him so far. Kerry was more concise, and more forceful, than he has been all year. He accused Bush of failing to live up to his promise to go to war as a last resort. "Those words mean something to me, as somebody who has been in combat," said Kerry, making one of several references to his time in Vietnam. "Last resort. You've got to able to look in the eyes of families and say to those parents: 'I tried to do everything in my power to prevent the loss of your son and daughter'." Kerry also dealt directly with the key piece of evidence in the GOP's flip-flopping attack: his vote on the $87 billion funding for the war. "Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talked about the war," Kerry said, "But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Before the debate, pundits had questioned whether Kerry could land a punch without looking overly aggressive. In fact, he did something more difficult as he tied the costs of the war to the homeland. "Today we are 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost," said Kerry. "Two hundred billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors, and it's in Iraq." He also accused Bush of spending money on police and firefighters in Iraq when he's cutting money from police and firefighters in the United States. Both points translated the costs of the war into terms the voters can understand back home.

Kerry: the Lows

The more Kerry attacks the war in Iraq, the less he sounds like he wants to be there. Kerry's problem on Iraq isn't one of mixed messages. It's that he doesn't sound like it's his fight. That is only underscored by his reliance on international summits to find an exit strategy. Why should other countries believe in the Iraq mission when Kerry never really believed in it himself? For voters who think that Iraq is going in the right direction, Kerry offered little reassurance.

Kerry also wandered down blind alleys of his own. He stumbled into name-dropping exercises that were meant to boost his national-security credentials but sounded ponderous. When he cited the military figures who back him, most of the names meant little to voters. It also underscored Kerry's basic problem in challenging Bush. Kerry could only claim to be strong; Bush had the luxury of taking his strength as a given.

Assumptions Debunked

Overall, the debate was a microcosm of the campaign. Bush's strategy focused on tearing down Kerry's character. Kerry's strategy focused on policy details. The result was a reversal of some assumptions about the first debate. The Bush campaign suggested that foreign policy would be a slam dunk for President Bush after his successful convention in New York. That didn't turn out to be true. And the pundit class said the debate would be a dry restatement of talking points. Fortunately for voters, that also was far from true.