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Republicans, Democrats, Satisfied with First Presidential Debate - 2004-10-01

President Bush and Senator John Kerry resumed their presidential campaigns Friday, one day after a televised debate that focused on foreign policy. Both sides believe they benefited from the first of three presidential debates.

Democrats say they were encouraged by Senator Kerry's aggressiveness on Iraq and initial indications from some voters that they found the Massachusetts Democrat more presidential than he has appeared previously.

"We have to succeed," Senator Kerry said. "We cannot leave a failed Iraq. But that does not mean it was not a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was. Now, we can succeed. But I don't believe this president can."

The president's Republican supporters were equally insistent that Mr. Bush held the upper hand in the debate by displaying conviction and resolve that the United States must finish the job of reconstructing a free Iraq.

"He [Kerry] voted to authorize the use of force [In Iraq] and says that it is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place," president Bush said. "I do not see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say, wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send our allies?"

Representatives from both campaigns took to the airwaves following the debate to proclaim their candidate the winner.

Senator John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, had this assessment on NBC television.

"He is committed to success in Iraq and he laid out his plan about how to achieve that success," Senator Edwards said. "So, I think what people saw in this country is a man who is ready to be commander in chief."

Republican Senator John McCain had an equally upbeat view of Mr. Bush's performance.

"I think that where the president gained an advantage was on his continued reference, and [a] legitimate one, to his steadfastness and his unwavering commitment to winning this war on terror," he said.

Three post-debate public opinion polls indicated that the early advantage went to Senator Kerry. But most experts said there were no knock-out blows delivered by either candidate during the debate, something that random interviews with voters seemed to confirm.

Voter #1: "I think President Bush has explained his points very clearly, how he stands."
Voter #2: "Kerry is doing an OK job of showing himself as someone who is consistent and will be sending clear messages."

Political experts assessed not only what the candidates said during the debate, but how they came across to television viewers.

Professor Caroline Keating, a communications expert at Colgate University in New York, says both men had moments when they were effective in connecting with the television audience.

"Bush looked right into the lens of the camera and addressed the audience and he was very effective, very confident," she said. "And after that, I would say that John Kerry got better and better, stronger and stronger, more and more relaxed and confident."

Most political experts said Senator Kerry had the challenging task during the first debate of presenting himself as a viable alternative to President Bush.

Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg says on that issue, Senator Kerry may have scored some points.

"People who went in watching this debate with the assumption that the president would come off much better on national security may have seen the candidates pretty evenly matched and might have said, 'Whoa, Senator John Kerry looks pretty resolute, maybe I ought to give him another look'," he said.

The president's Republican supporters say they were satisfied that Mr. Bush confirmed his standing as a strong leader, an area that public opinion polls suggest is a strength for him compared to Senator Kerry.

The next debate will involve the two vice presidential candidates: Dick Cheney and John Edwards, next Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio. After that, two more presidential debates will follow, one on October 8 in St. Louis, Missouri, and a final encounter on October 13, in Tempe, Arizona.