Campaign 2004: The First Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

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HNN, 10-01-04

The First Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

The Instant Polls

CBS: Kerry the winner by 44-26 percent.
ABC: Kerry the winner by 45-36 percent.
CNN/Gallup: Kerry the winner by 53-37 percent.

Candidate Soundbites

John F. Kerry

  • “This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America.”
  • “Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”
  • “This president, I don’t know if he really sees what’s happening over there.”

George W. Bush

  • “He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it’s the wrong war at the wrong time. . . . I don’t think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops?”
  • “The only thing consistent about my opponent’s position is he’s been inconsistent.”

Historians’ Comments

Arthur Schlesinger Jr

  • “Foreign policy has always been on the margin,” but this time “it haunts the conscience of the American people — 9/11 and the question whether the war in Iraq is worth the cost.”

Henry Graff (Columbia University presidential historian)

  • “[Kerry] is going to have to tell us why he voted yes and no.” On Kerry’s changed position concerning the war in Iraq.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson (director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania)

  • “I see a clash, a rhetorical clash between a person whose strength was rhetorically as a governor and a person whose strength is as a senator — a businessman versus a lawyer.”

Stephen Hess (presidential historian and a Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution, commenting on CBS)

  • “There may be some gain on the part of people who were not as familiar or aware particularly of Kerry who now get a sense of his seriousness and articulateness.”
  • “I think it was a reaffirming experience for listeners. People who went in intending to vote for Kerry will have thought that he did well, and the same will be true of those who were the Bush supporters. But if the status quo is maintained, that is actually good for the president, since he went into last night up in the polls.”
  • “The president had been so incredibly skillful up to this point in trying to make the campaign a referendum on the challenger, so to that degree Kerry righted the situation somewhat. So that was undoubtedly helpful. But still, I must say, I would be surprised if there were any major changes in the polls based on this.”
  • “My impression is that very few Americans are going to change their vote. They made their positions clear. They in a sense cancelled each other out.”

Richard Norton Smith (director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on PBS)

  • “This was a debate about large issues. You heard George Bush, the nationalist debating John Kerry, the globalist and I thought Kerry did, his initials are not JFK for nothing. He was [chair] with John F. Kennedy in 1960 ‘we can do better.'”
  • “I thought Bush took an almost Reaganesque approach when he was repeatedly coming back to his few basic defining differences between these two candidates.”
  • “Style does trump substance as history does teach that. I thought Kerry was the smartest kid in the class and I thought that the president was a slightly world weary teacher occasionally brushing him off.”
  • “No, and I’ll say that’s a good thing. We are always griping about the fact that soundbites have crowded out substance. I don’t think there are many sound bites from tonight, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”

Ellen Fitzpatrick (professor of history at the University of New Hampshire on PBS)

  • “I think it was a far more substantive debate that we have seen in American Political History in many, many, many a year, and I think it is extremely important to remember that the last time the United States was in a massive and extensive effort in nation building and the context of war with an ongoing insurgency was in Vietnam. The period of 1964 to 1972 when that war waged there were no presidential debates, that was a coincidence but we never had the opportunity to see this stark contrast drawn. The American people have been given that opportunity tonight.”
  • “It is extremely difficult in this instance when you have John Kerry saying this war was a mistake, but he is not saying, therefore he will withdraw. He is saying it is a mistake that now needs to be fixed. There he can’t draw as sharp a distinction with this president.”
  • “I thought that Kerry had close to a zinger when he said I may make a mistake in my words but you made a mistake in intervening in this war.”

Michael Beschloss (on PBS)

  • “I don’t think the debate was that decisive, I don’t think it was a debate that will change many minds, cause people to say gee I see all sorts of things in George Bush and John Kerry that I didn’t see before.”
  • “The one thing I really think it did was this, these debates really drew a contrast between temperaments that is at times what a debate does well, and I often time felt as if I was sort of watching Adlai Stevenson debate John Wayne.”
  • “And you also had two guys each trying to knock the other out. Kerry saying that any President that has made all these mistakes doesn’t deserve another term, and George Bush saying don’t you know John, you can’t be a president, you can’t be a commander in chief if you keep on changing your mind and changing your core convictions.”
  • “And it wasn’t very much show business, and I think it was wonderful because I think that tends to usually overwhelm everything that you hear. I think this was a debate that you can hear for 90 minutes and be proud to be an American.”

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