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Sentiments Vary on Which Candidate Had the Last Word

Times Staff Writers

Americans cheered and booed, hooted and applauded as they watched the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates square off Thursday for the first debate of the election season.

They watched from their living rooms and bars and American Legion halls as President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic challenger, did battle in Coral Gables, Fla. And when it was over, the crucial question was how each had done in one of the most anticipated debates in American political history.

At a party full of Houston Republicans, it was Bush all the way.

“I think Bush was right on,” said Sharon Toney, an interior decorator. “He stood by his convictions and didn’t back down to anyone. With Kerry, I don’t feel any sincerity or conviction.”

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But at a Santa Monica bar filled with Democrats, the dominant opinion was that Kerry was the clear winner.

About 200 people jammed into PJs, including a number of women who sat on pool tables as they watched the debate on 10 television screens. They clapped when they believed Kerry scored a point and laughed when they thought Bush bungled a word.

“I take my voting seriously,” said Jocelyn McCormick, who said Bush was soundly whipped. “He tried to stay on message, but there was no message.”

In conservative Newport Beach, a group of about 10 people was sitting at the bar of American Legion Post 291, located on the edge of the harbor. They watched the debate on two televisions, and the opinion of how the debaters did, and how it would affect their votes, varied.

Luis Guerra, 64, said Kerry was the winner going away.

“He spoke more eloquently than Bush, and he seemed to know more about what was going on in the world,” Guerra said. “I don’t like Kerry, but he’s the better of two evils. I think we need a change in America.”

But Republican Jack Swickard, 58, said the debate did nothing to change his mind.

“I don’t know who won, but I don’t think Kerry did enough to move anything,” he said. “My biggest fear was that Bush would make a gaffe, and he didn’t. He seemed a little tense, but I think he came across very well.”

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In Berkeley, Democrat Nancy Skinner, a former city councilwoman, said she hadn’t planned to watch the debate, fearing it would lack substance. But she changed her mind at the last minute and was happy she did.

“I was impressed with both of them, actually,” she said, adding that she thought Kerry won. But she also praised Bush, saying, “He was on the defensive, but he had command of what he was talking about.”

It was standing room only at the Hawk and Dove, the Capitol Hill political watering hole.

Leland Cogliani, a 24-year-old analyst at the Government Accountability Office, was among the twentysomething crowd that stared attentively at the bar’s nine televisions.

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Cogliani and other Hill staffers watched the verbal sparring with a professional eye and were quick to offer instantaneous spin.

“In terms of foreign policy, the differences are really more about the implementation than strategy,” Cogliani said.

“I think Kerry is really stepping up” to the plate, said Amy Fisher, a 23-year-old staffer for Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), halfway through the debate. “Bush has already fumbled several times.”

In Seattle, a partisan Kerry crowd gathered at the District 751 Machinist Hall, where about 500 people watched the debate on two large projection screens. After the debate, Paul Taylor, 45, a program manager for Microsoft Corp., was scathing in his assessment of Bush.

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“It was embarrassing,” he said. “People from around the world were watching this, and the president looked terrible. Kerry did very well. He was engaged, articulate and well informed.”

Firefighter Craig Cooper, 41, was equally impressed with Kerry’s performance.

“John Kerry showed he knew what the issues were and that he had a plan for tackling the problems at hand,” he said.

At a Bel Air debate party, author and political activist Barbara Howar played off Bush’s repeated remarks about things being “hard work.”

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“Making sense of Bush was hard work, very hard work,” she said. “Bush has peaked with his message. He can now do one thing: stay on message. But it’s a lousy message.”

Times staff writers Jason Felch in Berkeley, David Haldane in Newport Beach, Kathleen Hennessey in Washington, D.C., Sara Lin in Fullerton, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Patt Morrison in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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