CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Hours after President Bush and Sen. John Kerry engaged in verbal fisticuffs Thursday at the University of Miami, two U.S. Customs agents were engaged in animated conversation at Miami International Airport.
"Kerry cleaned Bush's clock, just destroyed him," said one in exultation. The other man, who had not seen the debate on TV, said, "You're kidding, right?"
Ten minutes later, two Transportation Security Administration employees reporting to work at the airport high-fived each other. "I guess my man Bush showed that liberal a thing or two," one said.
After the eagerly awaited first debate between the two presidential candidates a month before the Nov. 2 election, victory was in the eye of the beholder with few strong Bush supporters or Kerry supporters willing to say the debate changed minds about their vote Nov. 2.
Yet, while not a firm indicator of how the race is shaping up, early polls showed that millions of Americans who watched the 90-minute debate were impressed with Mr. Kerry's performance.
Even Republicans who had been crowing that Mr. Bush had victory in November within his grasp conceded that Mr. Kerry lived to fight another day.
Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mr. Kerry held his own and that his performance and pundits' analysis that he scored points against the often defensive posture of the President would cause some Americans still unsure of how to vote to take another look at the senator from Massachusetts.
Karen Hughes, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush, predicted the debate would not change polls that give Mr. Bush a slight edge on being right about going to war in Iraq, and the Gallup Organization said yesterday that guess was correct.
The Democratic National Committee's talking points after the feisty standoff Thursday were that Mr. Kerry had a "strong plan" for winning the war on terror, showed a "new direction for success" in Iraq, and "told the truth" about increasing instability there, while Mr. Bush "stubbornly refused to face reality," showed he had no plan for Iraq, and "refused to accept responsibility for his failures."
Several polling experts predicted Mr. Kerry may have slightly narrowed the lead Mr. Bush has maintained in the polls since the GOP convention in New York. But they were still of the opinion that the election is likely to be close - although if it were held today Mr. Bush would win.
Many analysts wondered, however, if Mr. Kerry's command of facts and language and his insistence that Mr. Bush is a failed president would cause more viewers to tune in Oct. 8 when the two meet again for a town hall meeting in St. Louis, Mo., and on Oct. 13 when they meet for a final debate at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., to talk about domestic policy.
It is conventional wisdom that Americans vote their pocketbooks, which could mean in battleground states such as Ohio that lost jobs under Mr. Bush could be a positive factor for his challenger.
But the anatomy of Thursday's debate showed that foreign policy, meaning the escalating violence of the war in Iraq, has overshadowed the economy in recent weeks. It is unlikely that job creation will surge in the month before the election and it is almost as certain that stability in Iraq will not happen before then.
That means that voters have most of the hard facts they are going to get before the election.
Since the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates began sponsoring televised debates in 1988, this is the first time that foreign policy completely dominated a debate.
The Bush team insisted that the commission's plan of having domestic issues on the agenda for the first of three presidential debates be dropped in favor of foreign policy, where Mr. Bush believes he has an edge with voters worried about national security.
But during the debate Mr. Kerry repeatedly showed a strong command of the issues and jabbed sharply at Mr. Bush, calling him to task for a "colossal failure of judgment" in Iraq.
It was the first time voters have watched Mr. Bush grow visibly peeved and emotional while Mr. Kerry, just 10 feet away from him, said current foreign policy is endangering America, not strengthening it.
TV networks refused to abide by rules set by both campaigns that no shots of the other man would be shown while one candidate was answering questions. Thus, viewers frequently saw Mr. Bush looking in turn exasperated, disgusted, aggravated, and petulant. Mr. Kerry was far more unimpassioned, taking notes or staring at Mr. Bush with a slight frown.
Yet, ominously for Mr. Kerry, early polling said a majority of Americans still found Mr. Bush more "likeable."
Democratic supporters of Mr. Kerry said they were relieved that their candidate had shown himself as a decisive, strong contender to be commander in chief. Mr. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, exulted that Americans had just seen their next commander in chief in action.
But Mr. Bush's supporters insisted that Mr. Kerry never answered the President's drumbeat that Mr. Kerry's only consistent stand on Iraq has been his inconsistency. Mr. Bush noted, correctly, that Mr. Kerry voted to authorize the President to go to war in Iraq, but then voted against authorizing $87 billion to pay for war and reconstruction, saying the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans had to be rescinded to pay for it.
Now Mr. Kerry says he would not have voted for war if Mr. Bush had not "misled" the nation in saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when no cache of them has been found.
If there was a central argument that dominated the debate, it is whether Mr. Kerry is right that the war in Iraq has been a distraction from the war on terror and that the Bush administration dropped the ball in not catching Osama bin Laden.
Was Mr. Kerry more persuasive in saying that Mr. Bush had made a "colossal error in judgment" in Iraq or was Mr. Bush more credible that Mr. Kerry is wrong to say the war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place?
So far the polls give Mr. Bush a slight edge.
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