Skip to comments.If at First You Don't Succeed . . . Why Bush did better in the second debate.
Posted on 10/09/2004 9:23:13 AM PDT by MarlboroRed
PRESIDENT BUSH'S political strategists have avidly studied past campaigns. But they still repeated the most famous mistake of President Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign. They prepared Bush too relentlessly for his first nationally televised debate with John Kerry, holding practices and prep sessions for weeks before the actual encounter. The effect was to convince Bush he must avoid a gaffe at all cost. For most of the debate--the second half anyway--he was all but paralyzed. In Reagan's case, his wife Nancy insisted he'd been brutalized by his debate trainers, who told him he must be able to recite policy details. Something similar happened to Bush, who blamed both himself and his advisers. "He's not a detail guy," an aide said. "He's a big picture guy." But he said this after the debate.
Something quite different happened prior to the second debate. Bush boned up on issues in a more relaxed manner. There was only a single mock debate. Aides were easier on the president during practice sessions. The result was a vastly improved performance against Kerry. Bush looked comfortable. He put Kerry on the defensive several times. When Kerry gave a muddled answer on abortion, Bush responded, "I'm trying to decipher that." So was everyone else.
The second debate featured a town-hall format favorable to Kerry. Bill Weld, Kerry's opponent in the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, told the Bush camp he'd been clobbered by Kerry in exactly that kind of debate. Bush held his own. By the third question (of 23), he began to make points effectively. If foreigners are unhappy with his administration, so be it, Bush said. "What I'm telling you is that sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because they're right." He listed a number of them, including opposition to Yasser Arafat, rejection of an International Criminal Court, and ousting Saddam Hussein. The implication was Kerry would cater to foreigners.
With the exception of the Reagan debate lesson, Bush strategists have learned a lot from earlier presidential campaigns, especially Bush's own in 2000. Remember, for example, the last week of that campaign. Bush continued traveling but he dropped his attacks on Al Gore and merely asked voters to elect him. He told one Republican leader he expected to get 300-plus electoral votes and win Michigan, Pennsylvania, and perhaps even New Jersey (he lost all three). Gore, of course, took the opposite tack, stepping up his criticism of Bush. And the race tightened to a dead heat.
Bush won't go soft again. He intends to zing Kerry as aggressively as ever in the week leading up to November 2. The third and final debate is scheduled on October 13, leaving nearly three uninterrupted weeks for Bush to hone and deliver an anti-Kerry message. It may seem obvious that staying on offense is important in the closing days of a campaign. But polls in 2000 led Bush to believe he had victory in hand during the last week. This time, he plans to ignore the polls, whatever they say, and continue on the attack.
Another lesson from 2000 involves fertile new Republican turf in the exurbs. Bush did extraordinarily well in the outer suburbs of metropolitan areas, and Republicans piled up huge majorities there in the midterm elections in 2002. So Karl Rove, the White House political chief, and other Bush campaign strategists decided to target these rapidly growing areas in voter-registration drives. Why bother registering voters elsewhere who might be Democrats? The vast majority of residents of the exurbs are conservative, traditional families--exactly the demographic most likely to vote Republican.
In Florida, the Bush campaign discovered a new type of immigrant seen as likely to lean Republican. In the 1980s, liberal Democrats from the Northeast poured into south Florida, making the state less conservative. In the 1990s, it was non-Cuban Hispanics who moved in and reinforced the liberal trend. But since 2000, a large chunk of new immigrants are from the South, both retirees and young families who tend to be politically conservative. Rove was sent an academic study that reinforced this point, and he went to the trouble of consulting the scholar. Thus, new Floridians have been a special target for registration.
Rove's sidekick Matthew Dowd did much of the research into prior presidential reelection campaigns, looking at 1976, 1984, and 1992. He examined papers in the Reagan and Bush (the elder) libraries and those in the Baker Institute in Houston. James Baker was a top official in President Ford's 1976 campaign, which wasn't a reelection since Ford had been appointed vice president in 1973 and then succeeded President Nixon in 1974. Baker also ran the 1992 Bush reelection effort. Anyway, Dowd was looking for a campaign staff structure that would link top aides with White House officials and enable the group to make quick decisions. Dowd found models in the 1976 and 1984 campaigns, but not in the first President Bush's campaign in 1992.
Ford and Reagan, however, wouldn't recognize some of the tactics of the Bush campaign--for instance, Bush ads on the TV network operating in health clubs. Campaign manager Ken Mehlman boasts of an email list of 7.5 million Bush supporters. He says the campaign stays in touch with thousands of bloggers. He says it can tailor a message to a state or region. Since 1980, Mehlman says, he's learned a "one-size-fits-all" message isn't practical anymore.
There's a limit to the usefulness of the lessons learned and innovations implemented. Without a doubt, the 2004 Bush campaign is better than the 2000 operation. But the best campaign doesn't always win. One of the most impressive general election campaigns I've covered was Ford's in 1976, and he lost. Sometimes other factors--war, the economy, a candidate's weaknesses, even debates--overwhelm whatever a campaign can do. Still, a good debate performance always helps.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
" This time, he plans to ignore the polls, whatever they say, and continue on the attack. "
So will I and I pray Bush wins.
Gee Fred is that why you last night on Fox News called the debate a "TIE"!?
Bush won't go soft again. He intends to zing Kerry as aggressively as ever in the week leading up to November 2."
What is it with Republicans that they always being conned into "taking the high road", which always lead straight to defeat.
Bush better not go soft, he has to do what works. And why is TELLING THE TRUTH about Kerry and his record, and not letting him get away with lies considered "an attack"?
Barnes really flopped on his coverage last night. Bush really connected with every non-spin focus group ive seen.
I love Fred, but here's a tip for him.....BUSH WON BIG LAST NIGHT!
That President Ford almost won, only two years after Watergate and opposing a Southern Democrat, is still amazing to me. Coming from 30 points down to a virtually tie, that doesn't happen too often, not at that level.
I wonder if the first debate wasnt strategery. How many times have we seen the president misunderestimated and then he comes swinging. He was tired, no doubt in the first debate, and there were rules that he had to follow, plus the side by side TV option was supposed to be invalid. Plus the bar was lowered where Kerry had to really perform to keep up his facade from the first debate and he probably thought he could coast easy. Bush really showed it to him that the best defense is offense and the zingers proved it.
I still think that the plan was for Pres. Bush to come out weaker in the first debate so that all eyes and ears would be on his performance for the second one. There was so much hype for it. Of couse he hit a home run on the second debate and his great performance is getting alot more press than if he had done well in both debates. If he had done well in the first debate then he would be in Kerry's position right now. President Bush's poll numbers will be right back where they were prior to debate #1 and he will sail to victory easily Nov 2. IMHO.
I wanted to throw a brick through the tv last night when he called the debate a tie. We'll see what he says on The Beltway Boys later.
Bush won. Bush won. Bush won.
Kerry lost. Kerry lost. Kerry lost.
There was no tie.
The old media needs to wake up and smell the coffee or they'll be left behind.
I doubt there was a plan to perform badly the first debate, but I think Bush's performance last night makes the first debate disappear.
after the debate Freddie was on with Brit Hume and called
the debate "a tie".....what a moron
The whole Fox team last night seemed paralyzed by fear that someone might accuse them of thinking Bush had won the debate.
I was incredulous at first. Then angry.
Then I went elsewhere.
Fox needs to remember those who brung them to the dance.
schieffer is pro-kerry. he can barely hide it
I especially liked it when Bush ran over the debate moderator. The moderators in a town hall debate is not supposed to interfere with candidates rebuttals.
And while I'm thinking about it, Brit made a post debate reference to the even-handedness and non-obtrusiveness displayed by Charlie Gibson.
The placement of the "Name three mistakes you've made" question to Bush appeared to be a deliberate setup by Gibson. I yelled unflattering things at the TV screen when the liberal looking lady read that question.
Gibson had deliberately held that question to the last. It looked as if ABC was trying to provide fodder for the media to bash Bush, and to provide ad material to MoveOn and the DNC.
I'm still mad about it.
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