Moveon.org was happy with John Kerry’s performance in the first debate, but it was very pleased with how some conservatives were critical of the president. In an email to its supporters, Moveon.org said that, “Even the conservative pundits gathered on Fox News had to admit that Kerry looked pretty good last night.” It also quoted “right-wing commentator Joe Scarborough” on MSNBC as saying that Kerry won the debate.
Over at the Washington Post, reporters Jim VandeHei and Dana Milbank were quick to quote Kate O’Beirne of the National Review as saying that Bush did a bad job. They reported that, “?Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that Kerry enhanced his chances of winning in November by hammering the president’s credibility on Iraq and avoiding the meandering responses that have plagued him throughout the campaign. Some conservatives, such as Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, said Bush’s performance was damaging. ‘I thought the president was repetitive and reactive,’ she said.”
The next day, Dan Balz of the Post was referring to how Kerry was hoping to “capitalize on the momentum from a strong debate performance?” The spin had now become established fact because conservatives had joined the liberals in bashing Bush. The positive press gave Kerry supporters what they had been hoping for. A new poll found that Kerry had taken the lead over Bush in the wake of his debate performance.
Interestingly, the Balz story said that, “Bush advisers were described as stunned by how negative the reviews were of the president’s performance, which many of them regarded as not his best but not so bad.” Those advisers must have been stunned by the fact that some of those reviews had come from fellow Republicans serving as pundits and commentators. At this point, it was unclear whether Bush could rebound to win the election. If he loses, the turning point could well be how conservatives on Fox News and in the rest of the media panned him for that first debate performance, helping to create the perception that Bush couldn’t defend his own record and policies. Those conservatives were certainly entitled to their opinions but they seemed not to understand how their comments could and would be used to damage Bush politically.
Many conservatives, without access to the media, didn’t think Bush did so badly. One told us, “I felt that Bush really did well last night and I was puzzled by the reaction from left and right that it was a smashing Kerry victory. The USA Today numbers seem to bear out that the victory was on style, but people still like, believe, and trust Bush more.”
Those poll numbers gave Kerry the win but also showed that Bush won on substance. Asked whether either candidate demonstrated he is tough enough to do the job, Bush won 54-37. Asked who would better handle the situation in Iraq, Bush won 54-43. Despite these pro-Bush numbers, the fact that some prominent conservatives had bashed the president solidified the notion in the press that he was the big loser. This could be the turning point in the campaign, spelling doom for Bush on November 2nd.