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Students, professors react to Bush-Kerry debate

Teresa Fralish | Friday, October 1, 2004

As presidential candidates Senator John Kerry and President George Bush sparred over foreign policy topics Thursday evening, student and faculty viewers said the debate had no clear-cut winner, though both men demonstrated individual strengths.

The 90-minute debate between Bush and Kerry, moderated by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, took place at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. All topics and questions were chosen by Lehrer.

“Certainly tonight nobody lost this debate,” political professor David Campbell said. “I don’t think there were many surprises here.”

Political science professor Peri Arnold, who specializes in presidential politics, agreed that the debate had no overwhelming winner, but said Kerry emerged with a clear edge.

“I think Kerry did very well and played against form,” Arnold said. “I think that he was extremely successful in his presentation.”

Given Bush’s current lead in the polls, Arnold said he was most surprised by Kerry’s performance against Bush, especially on foreign policy issues.

“I think Kerry was the superior candidate in that he did better than expected. I think this is a format that served him particularly well,” Arnold said.

In contrast, Arnold said Bush tended to repeat much of what he has said already throughout the campaign.

“What he did was to read the script which we’ve heard so much,” he said.

Political science professor Alvin Tillery said Bush’s repetitive answers stood out to him as well, and could pose a major problem for Bush in later debates on domestic issues.

“You can’t just repeat yourself over and over,” Tillery said. “[Bush’s] domestic record is very weak.”

However, Campbell, a specialist in political participation, said this repetitive tactic may have been beneficial to Bush since many viewers do not actually watch the entire debate.

“[The debate] demonstrated that contrary to his critics, George W. Bush is able to think on his feet and form an answer that is quite compelling,” Campbell said.

Tillery said the debate generally provided viewers with a further look at the already established views and personalities of both Bush and Kerry.

“I thought both candidates delivered performances that were within their range,” he said. “[Bush] definitely played to the strengths that incumbent presidents always play to.”

Students watching the debate agreed that no candidate overwhelmingly outperformed the other.

“As a Kerry supporter, it reaffirmed a lot of the things I liked about Kerry,” sophomore Katie Kemnetz said. “As for issues, it’s basically stuff we know already but it was good to have it in that format.”

As a student from the United Arab Emirates, Kemnetz said she was particularly interested in this debate and its focus on foreign policy issues.

“I like the way [Kerry] focused on allies,” she said. “I’m very interested to see what Bush comes up with in the next debate.”

Sophomore Chris Harris said Bush and Kerry’s performances appeared similar.

“I don’t think either one really outshined the other,” he said. “I think they were even on major points.”

Though Harris said Kerry spoke strongly, he gave a sight policy edge to Bush.

“It really was even in terms of presentation, but I think President Bush has a much better policy. His agenda for America seems a lot more realistic,” Harris said.

Though she found the debate engaging, sophomore Sarah Miller said she noticed a significant lack of specifics in both candidates’ discussion of the issues.

“There was a lot of rhetoric flying from both sides and a lot of skirting of the issues,” Miller said.

In particular, Miller said the issue of genocide in Darfur deserved greater attention from Bush and Kerry.

“I wish the Sudan had been better addressed,” she said. “I really think it’s something that both candidates need to make a statement on.”

Arnold, Tillery and Campbell said it would be difficult to assess at this point what impact the debate might have on undecided voters, or the presidential campaign as a whole.

“I’d say that it depends on how many people watched,” Tillery said.

Campbell said while voters who lean toward one party may have chosen a candidate Thursday, gauging the debate’s impact on entire campaign would not be as simple.

“[Kerry] needs to gain more votes,” Campbell said. “For those pure independents, it’s hard to say.”

In assessing the first debate’s impact on future debates, Arnold said Kerry could build momentum from his performance Thursday.

“All the pressure tonight was on Kerry – he’s behind in the polls,” Arnold said. “President Bush has got to come back in the next debate.”

Thursday’s debate was the first in a series of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. The next debate will take place in town hall format next Tuesday, while the final Bush-Kerry debate will focus solely on domestic policy issues.

The debates are organized by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen televised presidential debates since the 1972 election.