Debates can flip-flop polls, even after a second round

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After intense, even fierce, sparring over Iraq, President Bush and his challenger ended up, as I saw it, even on debating points. But a John Kerry who went into the debate some 20 points behind in polls measuring the "likability" of the two candidates did much - in my estimation - to repair this negative image.

Passionate Bush supporters would not agree, of course, but I think that Senator Kerry's ability to remain poised and relatively genial while aggressively pressing his arguments was a decided plus, turning him into a more attractive, more presidential-appearing candidate than the voters have seen during the primaries up to now. Specifically, he was able to hit Mr. Bush hard on his Iraq policies without looking mean and angry.

The president held his ground well. But he did not, as supporters had hoped, blow his opponent away with his charges of Kerry's weak positions, such as: "I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place."

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Bush seemed to lack some of his usual zest. "Where were his follow-up punches that could have destroyed Kerry?" I heard several disappointed Bush backers asking on TV right after the debate.

Indeed, through his more likable - and therefore his more persuasive - appearance, Kerry was able to stay in this contest for the presidency after several polls had shown him falling behind Bush to the place where, had he been clearly and decisively beaten by the president, he may well have plunged into an irreversible decline.

Instead, I think Kerry - whom even some of his aides were becoming worried about, feeling he simply wasn't likable enough to unseat a puppy-dog friendly president - not only stayed politically alive after the debate but also will carry a little momentum into this Friday's debate.

The coming debate now looms as immensely important. Kerry must keep banging away. But he isn't fighting for survival now, and he seems to have found an effective speaking style. Expect more of the same from him. But on Friday night look for the Bush whom we saw the day after the debate - back to whacking his opponent aggressively and with glee as he reentered the campaign trail.

Early polls indicate that a majority of viewers (estimated at 62.5 million) came away with a more favorable impression of Kerry than they did of Bush. Some polls also showed Kerry catching up with Bush. But we must wait on later polls - taken after voters think it over for a while - to find out if the Kerry upturn is solid.

Kerry's gains could quickly be reversed - I'm thinking of the first debate between President Ford and his challenger, Jimmy Carter, back in 1976. Mr. Carter was holding a 15- to 20-point advantage over Mr. Ford (who had never recovered politically after pardoning Nixon in the early days of his administration). But an aggressive president, showing a commanding mastery of domestic issues, narrowed the gap substantially by his performance that night.

Ford was close to overtaking Carter when, in the next debate, he made that famous flub with this incredible answer to a reporter's question: "There is," Ford contended, "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford took several days to admit he had misspoken, and by that time the gaffe had ended his rise toward overtaking Carter.

And, finally, the debate Tuesday night: Look for a hard-charging John Edwards, using all his courtroom skills, seeking to build on the momentum gained by Kerry. Vice President Cheney will be what he always is: calm, slow talking, and very well informed on the issues.

Vice presidential debates have never been known to have a lasting effect on a presidential election.

Remember when Lloyd Bentsen delivered that so-called knockout blow to Dan Quayle? Responding to Mr. Quayle's comment that he had as much experience as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president, Mr. Bentsen publicly insulted his Republican opponent by looking him in the eye and saying, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Well, that was in1988, when the senior George Bush won the presidency and Quayle became the vice president.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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