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Published: Tuesday, 10/12/2004

Good TV? Undebatable

UNDECIDED voters who missed the second presidential debate lost a chance to see George W. Bush and John Kerry at their best, fielding questions not from a TV journalist but from uncommitteds like themselves.

The town-hall format of the head-to-head at Washington University in St. Louis gave the President an opportunity to play up his folksy manner and the Massachusetts senator a chance to demonstrate his convictions.

Both men were at the top of their game, as reflected in the results of an initial poll by CNN, USA Today, and the Gallup organization. The viewer sample gave Senator Kerry a slight, yet statistically insignificant, edge of 47 percent to 45 percent as the debate winner, with a 4 percent margin of error.

Prior to the survey and the inevitable spin, each candidate sought to use the evening as a way to put some distance between himself and his opponent.

President Bush projected forcefulness and self-confidence and scored debate points against the challenger for clear expressions of his opposition to abortion and stem-cell research.

Mr. Kerry, who had a tougher time explaining his more nuanced positions on those issues, was more impressive when asked why some voters think he is wishy-washy. His answer was honest and straightforward and should take some of the steam out of that well-worn talking point by the Bush campaign.

He said he had voted for the Patriot Act, but was displeased with how the Bush Justice Department was enforcing it. He said he had voted for the No Child Left Behind education plan, but that the Bush Administration had failed to fund it properly. He said he had supported going to Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, but because the President never found them the Bush campaign has turned into a "weapon of mass deception."

It's clear that after two presidential debates and one vice presidential skirmish, neither ticket has delivered a knockout blow to the other. That should make the one remaining debate between the two presidential contenders - tomorrow night in Arizona - must-see TV.



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