Why Bush Won
He really invigorated his troops tonight. He did it by being in charge and because he was sure enough of himself to use humor effectively. Most importantly, last Thursday he was defensive; tonight he was persuasive. In both cases the substance was largely the same, but the audience made the difference.
I thought there were two key moments tonight, both of which had to do with personal believability. The first was when Bush just ran right over Charles Gibson and answered Kerry without letting Gibson redirect him. Bush certainly showed he was taking charge, which was very encouraging; the leader of the free world ought not be cowed by some talking head. But the key was this: Bush seemed to me in that moment someone who had seen his honor impugned and was going to confront the problem come hell or high water. It was a very honest reaction because it seemed like someone whose word was so important to him that he just couldn't let something slide. It was revealing.
The other big moment came when Bush said, "I own a timber company?" in response to Kerry's classification of Bush being a small business. It was a very relaxing, humorous response, but what it did was indicate to the audience that his opponent would say anything, even ridiculous things, in order to get ahead. To my mind, it was the most effective attack on Kerry's credibility, more intuitively effective than the most liberal senator thing (did he say Kerry or Kennedy?) or the number of times Kerry voted for taxes. That little exchange goes straight to the gut and buttresses what else Bush says.
This is a big win for Bush, coming after Cheney's performance, because it invigorates his base. (Little projection coming up here.) I dreaded watching this tonight; in fact, I wasn't going to watch it, and I couldn't help myself. I got into it about 8:30...and I couldn't pull myself away. I'm enthused about it, and that's important because of swing voters.
People keep getting the swing voters wrong this year. First there aren't any; then there are enough to swing the electorate 8 points in a week. Things that are said are conventionally supposed to either attract or repel swing voters. Everyone's always looking for that magic formula defining what swings swing voters. Well, I've got news for folks: this year, at least, partisans swing swing voters. It's the people who know the game who will convince their neighbors and family why someone did a good job or would make a good president. Bush got his rank-and-file excited again in this debate, and that should show up in the swing vote numbers pretty soon.
It's fun to remember this debate ("you can run but you can't hide"!), and that's soooo much better than worrying about, "Could he really lose this election? Are we all gonna die?" Fun beats dread when it comes to picking up momentum.