"Bush Comes Back, But Kerry Holds His Ground"

Bush supporters conceded defeat after the first president debate, but haven't been as willing to do the same after Friday's matchup. Why? Was Bush better? Was Kerry worse? It's hard to find a straight answer in the press, as the spinners are busy spinning, fast and hard. If anything, Friday's debate likely left Kerry supporters feeling better about their candidate's chances of getting elected, and Bush supporters feeling relieved that there is just one debate to go before the election.

I have yet to come across a fairer, spin-free analysis than Ron Elving's "Bush Comes Back, But Kerry Holds His Ground":

After the second and final presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan's chief of staff James A. Baker III was asked if it had been a good idea for the president to debate. "I will not tell you whether it was a good idea to have a debate," Baker said. "But I will tell you it was a good idea to have two."

Back then, Baker was underscoring the general consensus that Reagan had righted himself in the second debate after a shaky outing in the first. Truth was, Reagan was not much different in the second debate, rambling on aimlessly in his last answer. But he did have that one winning line about the age issue, vowing not to exploit Mondale's "youth and inexperience." Most people remembered little else.

In the second presidential debate of 2004, the performance of Baker's current candidate, President Bush, also represented an improvement. And Baker, who had negotiated the debate arrangements for the Republican side this fall, once again had cause to feel relieved.

President Bush had been so widely panned for his repetition, mugging and distracted demeanor in the first debate (Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla.) that he could scarcely help but improve in the second round. He blinked a lot, but he did not grimace or squint when his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, spoke. The president often gave defensive answers to questions, especially in the early going, but his body language was more confident and effective.

It should also be said that the second debate began with huge pressure on the incumbent. Not only had he let down the side in Coral Gables, he had seen much (or all) of his polling lead disappear. Moreover, the week's news from Iraq was bad, the news about how we got into Iraq was worse, the country was getting caught short of flu vaccine and the last pre-election jobs report was pretty sour.

Still, now that the real pressure was finally on him, the president showed he thrives on it. The live audience interaction seemed to revive him and restore his stage presence.

Freed from the podium style of the first debate, Mr. Bush no longer seemed trapped and stiff. He all but leapt off his seat each time it was his turn to talk. Roaming the stage and addressing the audience members at close range, the president seemed to rediscover his rhythm. He got folksy and even feisty at times. He made a few jokes. He acted as if he knew someone out there liked him.

So if the president will generally win kudos for stepping up, will Kerry see his second debate performance graded down because he was not a clear winner this time? The answer will likely be driven by the polls, which determine so much of how we think about politics now. If Kerry's upward movement of early October ends abruptly or turns downward, his St. Louis outing will be subject to ever-more-critical reviews (much as Bush's Sept. 30 showing was).

But if Kerry holds his own in the polls as well as he did on stage with the president, this debate may be remembered more as a draw or as a close win for Kerry. Once again, the challenger managed to put Mr. Bush on the defensive on Iraq and other elements of foreign policy. That's the crucial element for him if he is to displace the man most people still think of as the more trustworthy commander in chief.

That sets up yet another potential irony. The president in St. Louis did better when the debate moved to domestic issues -- the economy, the deficit, health care, stem cell research, abortion -- than he had on national security. Is it possible that he will have his best night of the debates when the two men meet for the third and last time in Tempe, Ariz., Oct. 13? That's the night the agenda consists entirely of domestic policy, the arena where Kerry was once presumed to do best.