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TV Analysts Give Kerry an Early Lead in Quest for Spin

Times Staff Writers

After the presidential candidates gave their final statements Thursday night, the television commentators and instant pollsters took over. With some caveats, several said that Democrat John F. Kerry had made headway against President Bush.

CBS’ Bob Schieffer said Bush looked “somewhat defensive in the beginning,” while the Massachusetts senator “got off to a very good start.”

“Did Kerry connect?” asked CNN’s Jeff Greenfield. “I think the answer here was yes.... People who expected to see a wordy, conflicted, self-contradictory senator didn’t.”

On Fox News Channel, analyst Fred Barnes said: “I have to say John Kerry did better than I expected. He was very good, very articulate.” But Barnes, referring to the Iraq war, the debate’s central theme, said that he didn’t think Kerry made “a strong case that he has a plan, a strong plan, that will work in Iraq.”

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Another Fox analyst, Morton Kondracke, said of Bush and Iraq: “The president does have a plan, and I didn’t hear him really spell it out well tonight.”

ABC analyst Mark Halperin said Bush at times appeared angry. “It’s not usually a very becoming posture for a candidate,” Halperin said. But NBC anchor Tom Brokaw noted that one of Bush’s better moments was when he pledged, in blunt words, to hunt down terrorists.

Snap polls on ABC and CBS showed that Kerry fared better than Bush among certain samples of viewers. But CBS anchor Dan Rather added a caution that such views sometimes change in the days after a debate. And Schieffer said: “I don’t know what to make of these poll numbers.”

The post-debate spin on network and cable TV amounted to a separate high-stakes event. Both campaigns were hoping the televised commentary would help steer public opinion.

Four years ago, an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that Democratic nominee Al Gore was considered the winner of that year’s first presidential debate by a plurality of viewers. But the Republican, Bush, gained support in the days after the debate among many people who did not watch it.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the post-debate punditry -- what she called a “media commentator effect” -- boosted Bush’s 2000 debate ratings and eroded Gore’s. She predicted that Thursday night’s TV chatter would similarly influence public opinion.

“What the commentators say about what [Bush and Kerry] said is going to be more important to the nonviewers,” Jamieson said. She noted that most voters probably did not watch the debate or saw only a small portion of it.

Both campaigns put surrogates on air. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani plugged Bush, while Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and the vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, touted Kerry.

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Some network anchors sought to curb the spin. NBC’s Brokaw, for instance, dissected Kerry’s pledge to seek international aid for Iraq. He told Edwards there was no indication that France or Germany were prepared to send troops there.

“It’s easy for the challenger to make that promise,” Brokaw told Edwards. “It’s much more difficult to deliver on it.”


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