beginning of a new day for john kerry

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    Beth Gorham
    Canadian Press
    October 2, 2004

    On Friday, it was the dawning of a new day for John Kerry - pundits, commentators and television viewers alike were calling him decisive and presidential following Thursday night's first debate against President George W. Bush. (AP /Gerald Herbert)

    WASHINGTON (CP) - He's been accused for weeks of being a flip-flopper, a long-winded speaker, a man without a plan to deal with an increasingly chaotic Iraq.

    On Friday, it was the dawning of a new day for John Kerry - pundits, commentators and television viewers alike were calling him decisive and presidential following Thursday night's first debate against President George W. Bush.

    Kerry, it appears, is back in the game.

    Instant opinion polls of small numbers of viewers declared him the clear winner of the debate, a critical event in a tight race for the White House.

    Pundits widely praised his presidential bearing and unflappable style.

    Even some Republicans admitted Friday that Kerry did well in a 90-minute sparring session focused mainly on two very different versions of the Iraq war.

    Arizona Senator John McCain, who advised Bush on debating technique, called Kerry's performance the "brightest moment" of the Massachusetts senator's bid for the White House.

    But the critical question is whether the Democratic challenger did enough to start bringing voters still sitting on the fence over to his camp and close a narrow but consistent gap with Bush before the Nov. 2 election.

    That's something expected to become clearer in the next few days as extensive public opinion surveys are completed.

    In the meantime, the political spin doctors are in high gear, putting the best possible face on the performances of their candidates in the hopes of influencing those polls.

    At the very least, analysts say, Kerry attracted enough positive attention with confident, cogent attacks on the president's Iraq invasion and anti-terror war to prompt a lot of Americans to tune in for more during the next two debates this month.

    And while many observers agreed that Bush stayed on message and made no major gaffes, his demeanour during the face-off came in for some tough scrutiny.

    A New York Times editorial on Friday said Bush seemed "downright petulant" while Kerry was attacking his first-term record, grimacing, scowling, pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes in anger, frustration and annoyance.

    In stark contrast, Kerry kept his cool, often smiled, took notes and politely shook his head during attacks from Bush.

    The two camps negotiated debate rules that tried to limit networks from showing Bush as Kerry was speaking and vice versa. But they were well aware that TV executives had no intention of following the edict.

    And it was Bush's facial expressions and body language during Kerry's remarks that seemed to hurt him most.

    "Bush seemed tired, almost like he didn't want to be there," David Gergen, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, told CNN.

    "The president looked coiled and tense and irritated and like he was not in control of himself," Newsday columnist Ellis Henican told Fox News Channel, widely regarded as a pro-Bush news organization.

    National Review editor Rich Lowry praised Bush's performance on Fox, but conceded he "was very repetitious, at times he seemed at a loss for words and there were a lot of opportunities missed to score points against Kerry."

    Bush aide Karen Hughes explained the president's annoyance as "irritation at the senator's misrepresentations."

    "He was answering the senator with his face," she said.

    Facial expressions and gestures are important in TV debates that are often as much about style as substance as voters decide who's more likeable and presidential.

    The spin wars waged by each camp in the days following a major debate can have a major impact on whether voters stick with their first impressions.

    In 2000, Democrat Al Gore was widely credited with winning his first debate with Bush until Republicans started talking up his audible sighs and so-called pompous attitude. When pundits picked up on that view, it became a factor in Gore's failed run for the White House.

    Kerry's strategists appear to have learned a lesson from that and have enlisted Democratic legislators to flood the airwaves for the next few days to influence debate dynamics.

    "We want them to amplify our message," Kerry campaign aide David Castagnetti told The Hill newspaper. "We're encouraging members to host debate parties in their districts."

    Republicans, meanwhile, have been doling out positive feedback to some 5,000 conservative Web outlets, according to Wired News.

    "Our rapid response effort is based on the premise that no attack or no misstatement will go unchallenged," said Michael Turk, director of the Internet campaign.

    Still, Kerry is likely to be viewed as the winner in the days ahead since it looks like pundits will stick with their initial take on the debate, said Eric Boehlert, writing for, which widely sampled post-debate reaction.

    Kerry was in a dead heat with Bush until the Republican convention in New York at the end of August, where Bush scored points by aggressively painting the senator as a serial flip-flopper on tough policy questions.

    Since then, Kerry's been trailing Bush overall by about five points. He's also been scoring lower on the issue of who can best lead on Iraq and fight the terrorists.

    The second debate is scheduled for Friday in St. Louis, Mo., followed by the final one at Arizona State University on Oct. 13.

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