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Bush and Kerry Face Off in the First of Three Presidential Elections

September 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: But first we’re going to talk to find out what Republican and Democratic partisans are saying, and for that we go to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And we get that from C. Boyden Gray; he’s the former White House council to the first President Bush. He was one of the former president’s chief debate advisers as well.

And Donna Brazile, she was Al Gore’s campaign manager. She’s now a chair of the Voting Rights Institute at the Democratic National Committee.

And, Donna Brazile, John Kerry had to stand with an incumbent president of the United States and make his case tonight. Do you think he did it?

DONNA BRAZILE: I thought he did an excellent job. Look, he had to come across as a credible challenger. He did that.

He had to appear to the American people as not only knowledgeable about the issues but very comfortable in delivering his responses to the questions. I thought he did both exceedingly well.

This was a debate where George Bush went in pretty much with a clear advantage, foreign policy, that’s his strong suit.

George Bush was supposed to put John Kerry on the defensive and make him defend his votes, make him defend his record. He didn’t do that.

He was on the defense, responding to John Kerry’s strong charges that he mishandled the war and this was the wrong war at the wrong time. So I thought John Kerry did very well.

And this is going to help John Kerry shore up some of the support he’s been losing over the past few weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: C. Boyden Gray, the president returned again and again throughout the debate to a lot of the key themes in his stump speech. Was it an effective tactic?

C. BOYDEN GRAY: I thought it was very effective. There are always two… first, I want to say as a Harvard guy, I thought the two Yalies did great, but I thought my candidate did better.

There’s always style and there’s substance. And I thought on the style question, the president was more direct and more decisive and more fluent, which is I think a surprise — maybe because he’s not considered to be as articulate, say, as Sen. Kerry. But I thought he was more articulate.

And on the substance, I think he put Kerry on the defensive at the same time as he was able to make his own points of his own policy going forward to the future.

So, it was a strong performance, I thought, from President Bush, really very surprisingly strong.

RAY SUAREZ: Donna Brazile mentioned that John Kerry was on this offensive on the war and the handling of the aftermath of the war.

Do you think the president managed to explain his decision-making process and the various policies that have rolled out during that time?

C. BOYDEN GRAY: I thought he was much better putting Kerry on the defensive about what is this war all about.

Are you against the war or are you just against the way some of it has been executed. The president and I disagreed with the prior comment on this program.

The president did admit what the big mistake was in his opinion, that the war was won too fast; they didn’t get rid of the Baathists going in and they didn’t expect them to come back. And that was a mistake.

He was very forthright in admitting this today as he has been in the past. And I think that is the key to understanding how he plans to win this war.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is by common consent the debate that gets the largest audience, the first one.

What was imperative for your candidate tonight, and did he manage to achieve those objectives, just looking at the remaining weeks of the campaign?

DONNA BRAZILE: Well, this is clearly one of the most important issues of this election, foreign policy, the president’s conduct, not only on the war on terror, as well as the president’s conduct in the war on Iraq.

I thought again, John Kerry, he’s the challenger, he’s not the incumbent, it’s the incumbent that must defend his record. John Kerry basically said to the American people, and they want to know a little bit more about John Kerry, he said, look, I have a plan.

He outlined his plan, more than one time. He repeated it several times. He said, he was very clear in that, I think that’s why Bush got a little testy at times, he said, what you have with this current president is more of the same, four words.

When he outlined alliances, I agree, probably too much on alliance. He could have scored if he would have just kept bringing it down home to those soldiers and what they are lacking and what they are missing and what they need in order to do the job effectively and what he could do.

But he got around to it, and I think that will help him going into the next debate.

People will now listen to John Kerry and know that he not only has a plan, but he’s clearly someone who could challenge this president on something that is supposedly his strong suit.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the president able to neutralize that attempt on the —

C. BOYDEN GRAY: I think president did a very good job of laying out that Sen. Kerry still doesn’t know what his mind is about this war, whether it’s the right war or the wrong war.

You can talk all you want about execution, and we discussed this a little, but Sen. Kerry can’t make up his mind whether this is someplace we should be or shouldn’t. And the president is quite right to say you can’t lead troops, American troops, put them in harm’s way, you can’t lead foreign countries to help us if you’re not sure we’re right to be there.

And Kerry is going back and forth and went back and forth in this debate. The first question was on terrorism. And he said ‘I’ll do better in Iraq.’ Then later in the debate he says this isn’t about terrorism.

I don’t know what… I still don’t know where Sen. Kerry is on whether we should be there or not; I really don’t know.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quick response.

DONNA BRAZILE: Well, I have to disagree strongly because I think Sen. Kerry stated up front in his response to the first question that this was… this war, the way in which the president went about it was wrong and he stayed there consistently throughout the debate and did not tire in defending his position.

RAY SUAREZ: But about Boyden Gray’s point that we still don’t know whether we belong there now and what we’re going to do —

DONNA BRAZILE: I think for the American people…

RAY SUAREZ: Did he make that clear?

DONNA BRAZILE: I think he made it clear. But, look, you’re not going to get Republicans off their – the sound bites and the stump speech — that they basically have told the American people.

I think what Kerry said tonight is: here’s what I believe. And that’s what he had to say. He said: ‘Here’s what I believe,’ and the American people have to believe him at his word, that he has a plan.

What the Republicans will continue to do is just their daily stump speech: Kerry is wishy-washy, he’s a flip-flopper. I don’t think that will wash after tonight.

RAY SUAREZ: Other issues did come up: Afghanistan, North Korea, Darfur. Are these things that can really move the electorate?

C. BOYDEN GRAY: I think the Iraq issue, the terrorism issue is the dominant issue in this campaign, in this debate.

And I don’t think the other issues really matter that much, that came up at the end of the debate. I don’t think so.

DONNA BRAZILE: I think they’re important, especially North Korea, the fact that now they have nuclear weapons and what that means to this country.

That will also be Iran, what the president tends to do in Iran. They could be important issues, but the war in Iraq, no question, is the number-one issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to see you both. Thanks.