President Bush last night forcefully articulated his stance on the war on terror and portrayed Sen. John Kerry as incapable of consistent leadership, rebounding from his poor performance in the first debate to show the steadfastness analysts say swing voters will respond to positively.
“I think Bush killed him,” said political consultant Dick Morris, who helped steer Democratic President Clinton to two terms. “Bush came out aggressive. He clearly won the exchanges on Iraq and he even won the domestic debate.
“I think he clearly won, and I think you will see that in the polls — moving from a one- to two-point lead to a four- or five-point lead,” he said, adding that Mr. Bush’s style and substance should impress those still on the fence.
Most polls showed that Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, won the first debate, but political analysts said they thought Mr. Bush was much more comfortable and assertive in last night’s second debate, a town-hall format at which undecided voters asked questions at Washington University in St. Louis.
Several analysts said the performance will also hearten Republicans fearful Mr. Bush had not been aggressive enough in the first debate in Coral Gables, Fla., last week and was letting the race slip away.
“Go to your window, open it and listen carefully,” said Peter Robinson, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan. “What you’ll hear is a huge sigh of relief.”
Democratic political consultant Elaine Kamarck, who has served as an adviser to the Kerry campaign, had a very different view.
She said Mr. Bush came off “angry and frequently discombobulated” while Mr. Kerry was “steady.”
“Looking into the camera and promising he wouldn’t raise taxes was one of his best moments,” Ms. Kamarck said. “It will win him the election.”
CNN’s focus group of undecided voters reacted positively when Mr. Bush was speaking, and nearly all of those asked said they had made their decision last night. Several national polls have the race a statistical dead heat, a couple of which had seen Mr. Bush lose a slight lead after the first debate.
The consensus of Democrats last night was that Mr. Kerry did not lose the momentum he gained from the first debate, and that his attacks on the president’s handling of Iraq and the economy will do some damage as the tight race heads into the final weeks of the election.
Ms. Kamarck spotted one presidential gaffe that she feels will go down in history.
“Bush had what has to be the strangest moment in presidential debates since Ronald Reagan got lost wandering down the Pacific Coast highway — when he answered a question about the Supreme Court and referred to the Dred Scott decision,” she said. “He looked hopelessly muddled and made one wonder if the Internet rumors about someone talking in his ear weren’t true.”
“One more debate like this and Kerry will be six points up — enough to win this without the Supreme Court,” she said.
Mr. Robinson was a little concerned in the first third of the debate, when he was scoring Mr. Kerry ahead because he was “more energetic and well-spoken.” Mr. Bush was able to fight to a draw in the middle third, which straddled foreign policy issues and health care.
But the end, especially when a voter asked why embryonic stem cells must be destroyed for research when adult stem cells work just as well, Mr. Bush “found his voice” while Mr. Kerry sounded evasive.
“On the question of stem-cell research and abortion, both party’s candidates tend to shrink from answering those questions,” Mr. Robinson said. “But Bush’s answers were straight up. He didn’t shrink from his convictions and in my opinion, there is something very appealing to swing voters about someone who tells you what he believes.”
Republican political consultant Frank Donatelli said Mr. Bush did a much better job last night in defending his policies in Iraq, and seemed much more natural in the town-hall format than Mr. Kerry did.
“The president took the fight to Kerry most of the evening,” Mr. Donatelli said. “He more clearly explained his Iraq policy, and he had the better of the argument on such domestic issues as taxes, health care, jobs, tort reform, stem-cell research and abortion.”
“This is a big boost for the president’s forces,” he said.