President Bush and Sen. John Kerry essentially stuck to their scripts, landed few significant blows and fought to a draw in last night’s opening presidential debate, political strategists from both parties said.
The strategists said the outcome probably will give a minor boost to Mr. Kerry who has been flagging in recent polls, but also will buffet Mr. Bush’s reputation for steadfastness that has been credited with swaying undecided voters to his camp.
“I think both have done well,” said Republican political consultant Frank Donatelli. “Both were well-prepared and had good command of the facts. Most people’s views probably won’t be changed by this debate. Partisans will find plenty of reasons for reinforcement for their present biases.”
Democratic political consultant Scott Segal said that Mr. Kerry lived up to his reputation as “a very good debater” and that Mr. Bush held his own.
“The fact is, these are two evenly matched contestants, and I think you’re seeing a debate that doesn’t have any clear victors,” Mr. Segal said.
The debate, which focused on foreign policy, saw Mr. Bush defending his decision to liberate Iraq by force and the 30-nation alliance he formed to do it and Mr. Kerry contending that the president has created a dangerous mess in the Middle East that only he has the skill to clean up.
Strategists said Mr. Kerry did not pull off the top-notch performance that could have wiped out the five- to eight-percentage-point lead that Mr. Bush has enjoyed in several national polls, but he probably did enough to at least stop the bleeding.
Joe Tuman, a speech and communications professor at San Francisco State University, said clear winners rarely emerge from presidential debates, but clear losers often do. In this case, neither man “laid an egg.”
“I think that on points, on the issues, Senator Kerry won,” said Mr. Tuman, who teaches classes on presidential rhetoric and debates. “But in terms of the realpolitik of the situation, the president did not lose. He went into the debate needing to avoid making a major mistake.”
A Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president “turned in a pretty solid performance.”
“I think that loyal Democrats were hoping the president’s head would fall off during the debate,” he said.
Mr. Bush came across as “calm, folksy and grounded,” but that each man got “a little testy” once they started to hurl some of their campaign stump-speech accusations at each other, Republican political consultant Bob Moran said.
“Bush missed some opportunities, but that misses the point,” Mr. Moran said. “Kerry made the biggest stumble tonight by citing a ‘global test’ for pre-emptive military action to protect America.”
Each man’s debate style, he said, are reflective of their core constituencies.
“Bush’s demeanor is all red-state — blunt, tough, plain-spoken, common sense,” Mr. Moran said.