10/17/04 — The debates: Voters now undecided could determine who wins

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The debates: Voters now undecided could determine who wins

The great debates of the election season are finished, and nearly everyone has chosen favorite candidates for president and vice president. Barring some cataclysmic event that would change some minds, the 2004 presidential campaign is all but over. According to the polls, nearly everyone has made a decision, but the race is so close that the candidates are scrimping and scraping for whatever undecided votes are out there.

All in all, the two presidential debates and the one by candidates for vice president held few surprises. Still, they had their notable aspects.

One was the poor performance by President George W. Bush in the first debate. The president seemed ill at ease in comparison to his opponent, the smoother, more eloquent Sen. John Kerry.

In the later two meetings, Bush seemed to gain ground. He was more relaxed, quicker with his responses, and actually seemed even to be enjoying the final affair. He made up some ground at one point by joking about his wife Laura’s instructional comments regarding his performance in the initial debate.

There were two particularly low points on the Democratic side. The first came in the vice presidential debate when Sen. John Edwards made a superfluous reference to the fact that Republican Vice President Richard Cheney has a daughter who lives in a homosexual relationship.

Cheney responded by thanking Edwards for the complimentary remark in which the senator had couched the reference. That should have ended it, but Kerry, stretching the point, found reason to bring it up again in the final debate with Bush. It was a low blow that time, a fact that Cheney’s wife, Lynne, later brought to public attention in rather heated fashion. “This is not a good man,” she said of Kerry. “What a cheap and tawdry political trick.”

While Kerry outperformed the president in the first encounter, Bush seemed to find himself in the last two debates. Those two were closer to a draw — perhaps even with Bush slightly ahead in the finale.

The vice presidential debate showed Edwards’ skill, honed in the courtrooms as a plaintiff’s lawyer, and Cheney’s maturity, experience and wit. The television commentators mostly seemed to agree that it was a draw.

None of the candidates took positions that they were unexpected to take. Little was said that hadn’t been said before. Still, these public debates are worthwhile. They are the modern-day version of the old encounters that became an American democratic tradition centuries before television was even conceived of — except that nowadays nearly everyone can see them. They give us the opportunity to assess the candidates almost as if in person. In a close race, the debates could be pivotal if they led just a few people to their decisions.

Published in Editorials on October 17, 2004 12:09 AM