- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

President Bush’s advisers yesterday acknowledged that Mr. Bush is seeking ways to improve his debate performance after Thursday’s face-off against a better-than-expected Sen. John Kerry.

“President Bush is someone who’s always looking for ways he can more effectively communicate,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in an interview.

By contrast, Mr. Mehlman characterized Mr. Kerry as a silver-tongued debater in the first of three matchups.

“He was certainly very articulate on behalf of his positions,” he said. “No question about it.”

Sen. John McCain, who spent yesterday campaigning with the president in Pennsylvania, suggested that when it came to stylistics, Mr. Kerry got the better of the president.

“It’s hard for me to say who won,” the Arizona Republican told reporters. “If you said just style points, I probably might say John.”

After discussing the debate with the president on Air Force One, Mr. McCain said Mr. Bush was conscious of Mr. Kerry’s strong showing and his own inability to conceal his impatience with the Massachusetts Democrat.

“The impression I get from the president is he knew he was in a good debate,” the senator reported. “I think he realizes that perhaps there was an irritability factor displayed there.”

The president’s supporters had hoped Mr. Bush would score a decisive victory that would effectively finish off Mr. Kerry in the first debate, which was on foreign policy — the president’s strongest suit. They acknowledged that he might have a tougher time in the remaining two debates, at least one of which will focus on domestic issues.

“It is going to be a very big challenge,” Mr. McCain said. “Going in, you have to give Kerry an advantage.”

Still, Mr. Bush will try to incorporate lessons from the first debate into his preparations for the remaining contests, which will be held Friday and on Oct. 12. While he made no major gaffes in the first round, he is expected to more aggressively counterattack Mr. Kerry next time.

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer doubted the president’s ability to adapt before the next debate.

“This president has enough trouble admitting mistakes about his policies,” he said. “So it’s doubtful that he’s going to admit mistakes about his performance in the debate.”

Some Republicans, looking down in the dumps after the debate, confided that they had hoped — even expected — the Republican incumbent to deliver the campaign death blow.

“If the president scored a clear-cut victory, he could put the election away — clearly that did not happen,” said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington.

One reason it didn’t happen, Bush supporters said, was that the president made no attempt to skewer Mr. Kerry when he left himself open to challenge in several exchanges. Instead, Mr. Bush stuck to his basic points, repeating them throughout the debate, while Mr. Kerry looked dignified, competent and — well — presidential.

Does that mean the Massachusetts Democrat is over his troubles and almost inevitably will pull ahead in the polls? No, partisans and analysts agree.

A post-debate Democracy Corps poll by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg seemed to confirm that Mr. Bush’s debate performance left him about where he was before the debate — a position Democrats acknowledged that they envied.

Mr. Bush, in some instances by margins of eight percentage points or better, had led in polls nationally and in many battleground states going into the debate. He was ahead mainly because, by wide margins, voters judged him to be a stronger leader and more trustworthy in protecting Americans from terrorism and in managing the war in Iraq.

They still do.

A Gallup poll taken immediately after the debate found Mr. Bush leading Mr. Kerry 54 percent to 43 percent on who would better handle Iraq and by 54 percent to 44 percent on who to trust more as commander in chief of the military.

Yet the same Gallup respondents Thursday night awarded Mr. Kerry the victory in the debate by 53 percent to 37 percent for Mr. Bush.

But Gallup also found that debate viewers found Mr. Bush more believable by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent and more likable by an even larger margin of 48 percent to 41 percent. Likability has been Mr. Bush’s political ace on the hole from the day he first entered politics in Texas.

What may be the unbridgeable gap for Mr. Kerry in the remaining weeks of the campaign is the 14 percentage-point lead Mr. Bush had in the post-debate Gallup survey on the question of which man “demonstrated he is tough enough for the job.”

Whether he is articulate enough was another matter.

“Viewers saw Kerry as more articulate in the debate than Bush, 60 percent to 32 percent, though they divided equally as to which candidate had a better understanding of the issues,” said David W. Moore, Gallup Poll managing editor.

Mr. Bush was not as deft a debater as Mr. Kerry, in the opinion of most debate viewers sampled. But those same voters apparently don’t think that has much to do with what truly counts for them in selecting or retaining a president — leadership and trust.

“The American people don’t support George W. Bush because of his communications ability but because of what he communicates,” said Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence, the incoming chairman of the conservative, 96-member House Study Committee.

Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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