Friday, October 08, 2004

I was afraid of this yesterday, but now I know Kerry will be fighting an uphill battle tonight -- the press already knows the story it wants to write, and that story is "Bush Bounces Back."

Yesterday we had The New York Times reacting to Bush's same-as-always-only-nastier stump speech as if it were a profound artistic breakthrough; now we have USA Today all but declaring Bush tonight's winner in advance:

Debate preview: Bush might have an edge in St. Louis

He's no Oprah, and his audiences are supporters who don't usually ask tough questions, but President Bush has an aptitude for the town hall format that will be used in Friday night's debate with Sen. John Kerry.

In 19 question-and-answer sessions this year, Bush has parried with a few hostile questioners, showcased his easygoing nature and created some poignant moments and laughs.

He seems comfortable roaming a stage, riffing on his views instead of delivering his standard speech. Friday night's rules allow Bush to move around the stage and respond to the voters who will pose the questions. "Being close up where he can interact with people directly" may give him an advantage, says John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University....

It's all like that -- pure, unadulterated praise for his skill in forums like this with no attempt at "balance." And those "few hostile questioners" he's "parried with"? Here's the example given:

On Sept. 7 in Sedalia, Mo., a questioner said her daughter, a fifth-grade teacher, was "very concerned" about how his education policies affect learning-disabled children. Bush said his policy is flexible and added, "But I will tell you something, I'm not going to yield when it comes to assessment."

"Very concerned"! A questioner hit him with "very concerned," and he had a comeback! What a man!

The USA Today piece is just outrageously slanted. But the feeling I'm getting is that the press wants to call this election a seesaw battle, and will do so starting at 10:30 tonight unless Bush, well, does as badly as he did last time around.

Of course, he might just do that. It seems to me that all Bush has done in public appearances of late is belittle Kerry, in an unstatesmanlike and nasty manner, and tonight he'll probably want to do the same thing out of force of habit, but it will be hard to get away with that with Kerry in the room. Belittling an opponent is easy when the opponent isn't there; when he is there, it seems rude and mean-spirited. And Kerry can respond -- he can be the grown-up. And if he has his facts straight, he can win again on points.

A lot of people do like Bush, alas -- as I noted a couple of days ago, the New York Times/CBS poll has his likability at 61%. (Audience members will titter when, inevitably, Bush says "flip-flop.")* Also, there's just enough in the Duelfer report about Saddam's ability to skirt sanctions and buy (non-WMD) weapons for Bush to put Kerry a bit on the defensive.

Kerry will have an answer for that, though, undoubtedly. And Kerry surely will press Bush to explain why he insists the world is safer in the wake of the terror attack in Egypt and the beheading of Kenneth Bigley, and press him on today's lousy job numbers and ever-rising energy prices.

But the press wants Bush to win. Kerry will have to score a knockout to be declared the winner.


UPDATE: Michael Berube has an advance transcript of MSNBC's post-debate analysis.


*However, a new Time survey has Kerry ahead of Bush on likeability. Thanks to Raw Story for the link.

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