- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry threw and landed enough punches in their debate in St. Louis Friday night to secure both their political bases, but they gained little or no new ground among undecided votes, election pollsters said yesterday.

Two polls called the second round of their three-debate series a draw. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted just after the 90-minute face-off, said Mr. Kerry eked out a narrow win over Mr. Bush, 47 percent to 45 percent, in a survey of 515 registered voters. An ABC News poll also said the liberal Massachusetts senator won, but by a similarly tight 44 percent to 41 percent margin, which reflects the closeness of the race.

Even so, in the strange political dynamics that govern campaign debates, a draw is more valuable for Mr. Bush than it is for Mr. Kerry, pollsters said.

“All things being equal, the debates favor the incumbent, and that’s pretty much what we saw Friday night. Both Gallup and ABC called it a tie and, in presidential politics, the tie goes to the incumbent,” said Clay Richards, vice president of the Quinnipiac College Poll.

But the dramatic difference between Mr. Bush’s performances in the first and second debates may have helped him in a much deeper way with his base as the electoral battle moved into the final three weeks of a campaign that both sides say is going to be decided by turnout.

Mr. Bush turned in a much more aggressive performance against his Democratic rival Friday that cheered and energized his supporters. They responded particularly to his attacks on Mr. Kerry’s changing positions on the war in Iraq, which he initially supported before becoming one its fiercest critics.

The two face-to-face meetings were a study in contrasts. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had Mr. Kerry winning the first debate by 53 percent to 37 percent, compared with the much more evenly matched performances Friday night that ended in a statistical draw.

But more important than who won the debate on points, analysts believe, is which candidate showed himself better able to deal with major national security issues. On this issue, the Gallup poll found Mr. Bush to be the overriding winner.

“Bush came off as better able to handle the war in Iraq, 53 percent to 39 percent,” USA Today reported on its Web site yesterday. “And Bush was rated higher than Kerry on managing the overall war on terror, 56 percent to 39 percent.”

However, on who could better handle the economy, voters split down the middle, 49 percent to 49 percent, the Gallup survey said. Mr. Kerry hammered Mr. Bush on the economy, pointing to a report, released Friday, that showed the economy creating only 96,000 new jobs in September, after a downwardly revised 128,000 jobs number for August.

But terrorism and national security dominated much of the debate, which played to Mr. Bush’s advantages on those issues.

“I see this as Bush’s election to lose and, in delivering a strong performance in the second debate, he did not lose anything,” Mr. Richards said.

“I see Kerry closing the gap somewhat, but I don’t see a situation where Kerry is in the lead with any [swing] constituency group,” he said. “After the first debate, Kerry helped himself among women, probably his biggest gains, but I did not see anything in this debate to cause more women to move toward Kerry.”

But pollster John Zogby, who has predicted that Mr. Kerry will win the election, said the debate Friday helped both candidates equally.

“It was Bush’s best performance ever. He was knowledgeable, witty, comfortable, especially on domestic issues, but Kerry was very good, as well. I doubt that it changed the election dynamic at all,” he said. “Both guys have now secured their base. The final debate is very important because that’s when they will appeal to the undecided,” about 5 percent to 6 percent of likely voters.

Mr. Zogby’s latest poll, just before the debate, showed the race dead even, while The Washington Post’s daily tracking poll yesterday had Mr. Bush ahead by 50 percent to 47 percent.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz also said he believes Mr. Bush did better in the debate Friday and helped to secure his base, but the president has still not won back “the voters that left him after the first debate, at least not yet.”

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