The Debate: Winners and Spinners

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - The general consensus from the mainstream media seems to be that neither Democrat Al Gore nor Republican George W. Bush delivered a knockout punch at Tuesday night's debates. And while neither candidate seemed to hurt himself, neither - according to the general consensus - delivered the line or the policy that will make this anything other than a squeaker of a race.

Both candidates repeated themes often mentioned on the campaign trail. According to snap polls conducted right after the debate, opinion was evenly divided, with a slight edge for Gore. Snap polls are not considered reliable indicators, however.

After the debate, Gore campaign chairman William Daley is quoted as saying of his candidate, "I think he had a strong performance. I think he won. But do I think it was a knockout? No."

Daley called the debate "a solid performance to build on. I don't think there'll be any big bounce in the polls. I think people will wait to see the other debates. It'll be a cumulative effect."

A Bush spokesman said the Republican "is pleased that he was able to outline the clear philosophical differences between himself and Al Gore."

What follows is a random sample of opinion expressed in major newspapers on Wednesday.

Writing in the New York Post, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris said, "Al Gore walked away with the debate." In Morris's opinion, "Gore was on the offense for the whole debate, which is a neat trick for an incumbent to pull off."

He said, "Bush was off balance... Neither man was Bill Clinton: Gore was boring; Bush was scattered.... Gore seemed better prepared. He looked more presidential. In a word, he won big."

Pollster John Zogby, quoted in the Washington Times, called the debate a "draw, and anything that is a draw is good for Bush." According to Zogby, "Gore went in prior to this debate with heft. Bush went into this debate with charm. And what emerged from this debate was a Gore with some charm and a Bush with some heft.

"That heft leveled the playing field," he concluded.

A New York Times editorial called it "an intense, sometimes barely polite televised debate... the powerful impression was of two advocates of different views of government."

"Mr. Gore came across as a candidate with ambitious government solutions who looked more confident on the attack, and Mr. Bush as a Washington outsider who hopes to stir public resistance to what he said was the vice president's partisan, big-government approach.

"At the very start, in fact, the vice president seemed flat, while Mr. Bush looked confident and better armed with canned attack lines about Mr. Gore's 'Medi-scare tactics.' Very quickly, however, Mr. Gore reverted to a more combative mode and seemed to break Mr. Bush's rhythm. Governor Bush retreated to saying that Mr. Gore's criticisms were based on 'fuzzy numbers,' but he dodged dealing with substance.

The Washington Post called the debate "useful": "There were no surprises in last night's presidential debate," says its lead editorial.

"Al Gore is better versed than George W. Bush in public policy questions, not just the details but often the broader outlines....Neither the candidates in their occasional repartee, nor the unflappable moderator Jim Lehrer, were able to jar loose any information which the campaigns had not previously divulged...."

"Many voters may have watched in part to decide which candidate is more likeable or trustworthy, and some time will pass before we know how that plays out. For those listening more for policy, the debate made clear that this election does offer a fundamental choice."

David M. Shribman, writing for the Boston Globe, said of the debate, "There were few missteps, few clear-cut moments of advantage. Instead the two nominees satisfied their narrow goals for the first televised debate, resolving little -- but bringing the image of both of them into clearer resolution.

"The two candidates made their customary points in their customary fashion, delivering well-rehearsed and oft-repeated assertions, offering few surprises. And so, over the course of 90 minutes last night, the public saw a Democratic presidential candidate who was determined but slightly pedantic. And it saw a Republican presidential candidate who was well-briefed, particularly on his domestic priorities, but slightly tentative and who seemed to tire as the event wore on."

The New York Post's Andrea Peyser said, "There was no clear-cut winner in last night's presidential debate, no single defining moment."

She called it a "pretend debate," which did not so much resemble a battle of wits and ideas as it did a squabble among earnest Ivy League grads."

Writing in the same newspaper, John Podhoretz saw the debate as "one of the best and most recent presidential history."

But, concludes Podhoretz, "because Bush proved unexpectedly eloquent and combative without being unpleasant, the debate probably did him more good."

Michael Tackett of the Chicago Tribune writes, "The first presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush generated few sparks and did little to alter their remarkably close race for the White House.

He describes Gore as displaying "a sweeping command of issues, his responses flowing forth as if his brain operated like some form of computer. (Gore resembled a "walking word processor," according to an article in the Washington Post.)

Said the Chicago Tribune article, "He [Gore] pivoted easily from affairs world and domestic, ticking off the names of remote nations and little-known leaders, easily delivering statistics and policies as if to underscore his credentials for the office. At the same time, he also displayed his tendency for overkill, like an overeager student trying mightily to impress."

In the Tribune article, Tackett says, "Bush proved he could stand on the same stage with the vice president, not always with the same confidence as his opponent, but with enough strength on some key issues to offer himself to voters as a plausible president. And that was a burden he had to meet."