Now, I am hardly an objective witness, but one hour into the debate, Kerry is reaming Bush in every way imaginable. Bush's flop-sweat, hunched-monkey posture, nervous stuttering, head-rolling, and awkward, prolonged silences are playing terribly on television. (Then there's all the facts, but I'll be shocked --- albeit pleasantly --- if the media gives a shit about fact-checking any more this time than in 2000.) Bush is recapitulating his broken-record non sequitur repetition tactic from 2000 (remember how many times he said "fuzzy math"?) and Kerry is landing some very palpable hits.
Followup: PBS commentators: Mark Shields says "narrow split decision for Kerry"; David Brooks says it's a draw; the three historians (Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, and Ellen Fitzpatrick) spout platitudes about both candidates, with their verbal remarks on balance displaying (in my opinion) a narrow pro-Bush bias. Michael Beschloss says Kerry projected the demeanor of "the smartest kid in the class" whereas Bush looked like the "world-weary older teacher" (hey Beschloss, does your definition of "world-weary teacher" behavior include freezing up for several seconds with a panicked look on one's face, whilst trying desperately to remember the talking points?).
Now, when I was flipping around among CBS, NBC, and ABC right after the debate, every single instant poll gave Kerry a large margin in the "who won the debates" question (CBS News: Kerry 43%, Bush 28%, tie 29%; ABC News: Kerry 45%, Bush 36%, tie 17%; note that the CBS poll was among uncommitted voters, whereas the ABC poll was among debate viewers). Every single person on NBC's panel of six hand-picked undecided voters said Kerry did better in the debate. KIRO 7 Eyewitness News at 11 ran a clip of an undecided voter from North Seattle saying that Kerry clarified his position more than Bush did.
I think it's pretty clear what's going on here. Right-leaning pundits are shameless, and liberal pundits are gun-shy, and so the obvious outcome of the debates gets obscured. Yeats comes to mind. It will be interesting to see how media coverage in the coming days pans out.
Republicans think Bush won, Democrats think Kerry won, and Independents think Kerry won. That's the way elections are won, provided we don't see a Gallup-esque oversample of Republicans at the voting booths.
Who won the debate? Kerry 45%, Bush 32% among all viewers, and Kerry 51% vs. Bush 20% among undecided voters. Solid gains all across the board for Kerry on a variety of issues. Even Bush's "mexed missages" [sic.] label didn't stick: 11% fewer independents viewed Kerry as a "flip-flopper" after the debate; or, in other words, Bush's single biggest talking point, the one his campaign has been flogging for months, and the one that he hammered on at every opportunity during the debate, actually lost traction among independents. That's called a win for Kerry, folks. Admittedly, this is a Democratic source --- James Carville, no less --- so it should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it seems to confirm, mostly, the trailing polls I note above.
p.p.s. Garance Franke-Ruta of TAP reports that CNN/Gallup polls say 53% think Kerry won, with only 37% for Bush.
p3.s. On the other hand, USA Today shows that Bush still leads on many important questions.