The Initial Debate Spin is Pro-Kerry. Will that Hold? Wait and See.
Flipping through the cable networks immediately after last night's Bush-Kerry debate, the buzz was that Kerry won the battle, but probably failed to deliver a knockout punch.
Ironically, among the punditry of MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, it was MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell who seemed the most pessimistic, only willing to agree that Kerry had re-established himself as credible among independents and soft-Kerry supporters. Others, such as Fox News contributor and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, were more positive in their assessment.
CNN pulled together a group of independent voters in Columbus, Ohio, and the brief segment I saw showed most of those voters found Kerry to be a viable alternative to Bush. That doesn't mean he won their votes -- but the impression I got was that they are going to pay more attention to Kerry in the remaining weeks of the campaign.
Ohio is a crucial swing state, with 20 electoral votes. Polls have gone back and forth, with Bush up by 2% in the latest Gallup survey.
CNN's Aaron Brown later talked with some independent women voters, and the reaction was the same -- Kerry scored some points, but not enough to win the voters over just yet.
The initial spin is important, because although an estimated 50 million viewers watched the debate, some will want to hear the pundits' views before deciding to believe what they've just heard. And other voters didn't watch the debate, but will rely on the television talking heads and their local newspapers to catch up.
After the first Bush-Gore debate in 2000, voters were asked for their instant impression of who won the debate, and those surveyed on average gave Gore a 10-point edge. But in the days that followed, the conventional wisdom shifted -- in large part because the pundits focused on Gore's sighs and minor errors during the debate.
Suddenly, the message coming from the debate was that Gore was an exaggerator, who mistakenly had said he met with the FEMA Director James Lee Watt when he'd actually met with his assistant. The pundits were all over that error -- so much so that Gore felt the need to apologize for his mis-statement. Meanwhile, mis-statements from Bush -- such as using the term "fuzzy math" to describe accurate assessments by Gore -- was overlooked.
So it will be interesting to watch how the pundits react over the next few days, as they themselves hear the GOP spin of the Bush-Kerry debate. Last night, I heard Karl Rove spinning how Kerry contradicted himself on the war last night and how he first "supported the war and then was against it." Karen Hughes was doing the same, and she also echoed a disingenous comment made by Bush during the debate -- that Kerry was somehow "denigrating" Poland and others in our coalition, when it was clear Kerry was denigrating Bush for allowing the U.S. to take on 90% of the burden, rather than building a better, broader coalition.
The worst bit of journalism last night came from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who turned a Kerry diss at the president -- that he moved troops from Afghanistan to Iraq and undermined Gen. Tommy Franks -- into a diss against Franks. I don't know if someone in the GOP had Blitzer's ear before he offered that comment. The alternative is that he just wasn't paying attention during that portion of the debate.
By the Sunday talk shows, we'll know how effective the GOP spinners were in converting the television talking heads. I'm worried that we're going to hear a lot of misrepresentation of Kerry on Poland, and his "global test" remark.