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.
“Mr. Kerry’s style is finely tuned, occasionally pompous and collegiate. Mr. Bush delivers a sermon on a world fight between good and evil, and Kerry delivers a college lecture on plutonium stockpiles in Russia.”
Elaine Kamarck, a Democratic consultant who has worked closely with the Kerry campaign, said the rules that allowed two minutes for the response to a question and 90 seconds for a rebuttal didn’t help Mr. Bush.
“Whoever on the Bush debate team agreed to the that format should be fired,” she said. “George Bush can’t talk that long. His strength is in sound bites. Given that amount of time — which on television is an eternity — it was evident that he had no good answers for a pathetic record.”
Ms. Kamarck said she thought Mr. Kerry “exceeded expectations by being smart and clear,” and predicted a slight bump in the polls for the Democrat who has fallen slightly behind Mr. Bush in the polls.
“This will give Kerry a two- to three-point bounce,” she said.
Mr. Donatelli said he thought Mr. Kerry “scored” by citing the cost of the Iraq war and the difficulties that the United States has encountered trying to stabilize the country.
“But he was less effective separating the war on terror from Iraq and especially his attempt to make his plan distinct from Bush’s,” Mr. Donatelli said. “Finally, I don’t know that Kerry scored any points for likability, though that didn’t seem to be his goal.
“If Kerry needed to win decisively, he didn’t do it,” he said. “He didn’t break new ground. I believe Bush will be seen to have had the better of the exchange by a plurality of viewers.”
Both camps have been downplaying expectations for themselves and boosting the other candidate as among the best debaters in modern history.
“We’re up against a master of debate,” Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said before last night’s encounter at the University of Miami. “We know that John Kerry has spent his entire life preparing for this moment.”