CLEVELAND - "Thank you and good night." Almost before the words left debate moderator Gwen Ifill's lips, hundreds of media scribes dutifully emptied the long white tables in a gymnasium at Case Western Reserve University where they had covered the debate and hurried to spin alley, where the campaign advisers waited to shape the coverage for their side.
Who had won? Would Kerry-Edwards Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill say vice presidential candidate John Edwards had been tough enough with Vice President Dick Cheney? Did Mr. Edwards adequately defend Cheney's attacks on John F. Kerry's judgment and consistency? Did Republican advisers feel Mr. Cheney effectively make the case that Mr. Edwards and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would not keep America safe in the post-9/11 era?
Which way did they think the momentum swung last night?
But in the end, perception is everything. And as they always do, the answers followed well-honed scripts that voters have heard throughout the campaign.
And, of course, both sides said their guy had nailed the debate.
Bush advisers argued the debate was a triumph of "substance over style" - a two-pronged attack on Mr. Edwards' limited government experience as a one-term senator and his background as a personal injury lawyer.
Mr. Kerry chose, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said, "the best advocate he could hire," and he couldn't defend Mr. Kerry's record.
Mr. Edwards "finally had a client he couldn't get off," said Bush campaign spokesman Nicole Devinish, holding court in a different part of spin alley.
"He looked befuddled."
"I just thought Edwards' understanding of the issues was very weak," said Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, taking another shot at the Edwards-Cheney experience gap.
For the Kerry campaign, advisers said it was a triumph of equal measure.
Mr. Edwards had finally held Mr. Cheney accountable for the "failed policies" of the Bush administration, they argued, showing that President Bush and Mr. Cheney were "delusional" about the economic recovery and the war in Iraq - all while offering a message of optimism and hope.
"Dick Cheney stumbled, looked arrogant, looked upset, and had a difficult time trying to defend the Bush policies," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
"Dick Cheney needed to stop the [Kerry campaign's] momentum tonight, and he didn't," said Kerry adviser Tad Devine.
"[Edwards] showed a clear, compelling picture of what is happening," Mr. Devine said. "I think he pointed out how oblivious the vice president is to what is going on," he said.
The 2004 campaign has taken the concept of spin to a new level - from the spin alley after debates where campaign aides try to drive the story lines for the next day, to the daily conference calls by both campaigns that catch the opposition's gaffes almost as quickly as they happen, to the emails like the ones from both campaigns yesterday in which they encouraged supporters to influence the postdebate polls by the networks and daily newspapers around the country.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maeve Reston is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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