Once again, my impressions prior to knowing what anyone else is saying:
This was an enjoyable debate. The questions were responsible and drew clear distinctions between the two candidates. The exchanges were sharp, but civil. There really isn’t a good reason for anyone to be undecided at this point.
I score a very slight edge to Kerry on style and a very slight edge to Bush on substance—so overall, a draw. However, Kerry didn’t do as well as he did in the first debate, and Bush did enormously better than he did in the first debate. That favors Bush. Support softened for Bush after the first debate and voters needed to be reassured by seeing him turn in a solid performance. They were.
There’s one thing that I think will eventually tip the scales to Bush: credibility. Substance and style aside, I think Bush simply comes across as more credible. Truly undecided voters will like some of the things Kerry said, but they won’t be convinced in their bones that he’s being straight. This is a visceral thing that will grow over the next several days and I expect the poll numbers to edge up for Bush.
Bush missed some opportunities. He didn’t use the ISG report as effectively as he could have. He really needed to make the case that the sanctions were not working and that Saddam was poised to resume producing WMD as soon as they ended. He should have made better use of the Afghan election. Sure this isn’t a point of difference between the two candidates, but Bush is the one who brought it about. That shows leadership and competence which voters will transfer as hope to Iraq.
Kerry was noticeably incoherent on a couple of questions. On the abortion question in particular he seemed to be flailing. When Bush responded by saying he was trying to decipher what Kerry said, I suspect a lot of people were thinking, “me too.”
For the next debate, Bush needs to come up with some strong answers about health care. He’s got to explain his plan and why it’s a good thing or he will lose on that issue. Also, he can’t keep letting Kerry say that NCLB is under funded. It’s not true, but Bush hasn’t been correcting him.