With one debate down and two to go, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are entering a critical new phase of a race that has been recharged and, in some ways, reframed.
In the wake of a debate centered almost entirely on Mr. Bush's policy in Iraq, Senator Kerry has succeeded in nudging some of the campaign's focus off his own character and onto Bush's record as commander in chief - a shift that has helped Kerry edge back ahead of Bush in a new Newsweek poll, after he had trailed the president in the horse race for weeks.
More important, however, the race seems to be crystallizing around a stark - and notably substantive - contrast in worldviews and leadership styles. While Kerry may have been dubbed the winner of last week's debate, both men nevertheless succeeded in getting their core messages across, presenting sharply different ideas about the kind of qualities and experience it takes to lead the nation and the world through a uniquely challenging time. Specifically, Kerry offers a more analytical, consensus-based, approach, while Bush presents himself as guided by core convictions.
"They were both who they are," says one Democratic strategist. "The messages were clearly and obviously delivered. Maybe now it's a legitimate test of message and positioning."
In the wake of the debate, the Bush campaign has pounced on a remark Kerry made about preemptive action needing to pass a "global test." In a new ad, the campaign accuses the senator of seeking "permission from foreign governments before protecting America." On the stump, the president has begun attacking the "Kerry doctrine," saying the Massachusetts senator would be overly hesitant when it comes to defending the nation, allowing threats to build.
"Senator Kerry made some critical errors in the debate that are going to have a long-term impact, like saying that ... we need to check with foreign capitals before acting preemptively," says Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens. "It's a choice between two very different candidates."
The Kerry campaign has responded with an ad of its own, accusing Bush of misrepresenting Kerry's comments - since Kerry also said he would never cede the right to strike preemptively - and of lying about national security matters in general. The campaign jumped on a New York Times report indicating the Bush administration was told by top intelligence analysts in 2002 that Iraq was likely not seeking nuclear weapons. "[Bush] withheld key intelligence information from the American public so he could overstate the threat Iraq posed," the Kerry ad charges.
At the same time, the Kerry campaign began to pivot to domestic issues, where Kerry tends to hold more of an advantage over Bush, in advance of Friday's town-hall style debate in St. Louis. The campaign purchased what aides describe as a "massive wave" of television advertising, focused on the economy and Bush's tax cuts. Although they say the issue of Iraq will continue to be part of the debate, they argue many voters want to know what the candidates will do for them at home.
"We can talk about both of these issues at once and that is what the American people are demanding right now," Kerry adviser Tad Devine told reporters.
Of course, the next debate could change the calculus of the race once again. Already, Democrats are saying the town-hall format plays to Bush's strengths - as a more informal setting that allows him to play up his colloquial style. They also believe Bush will present a notably sunnier persona, in an effort to erase the irritated and petulant images from the first debate. Expect to see "a different and retooled George Bush at this debate," says Democratic National Committee strategist Howard Wolfson. "We are anticipating a very strong performance from him."
The changing arithmetic of likability
For now, however, the first debate has gone some distance toward closing the likability gap.
The debate has changed, even if temporarily, some Republicans' views of the president. In Pennsylvania, one of the most important swing states, a number of GOP supporters were upset by Bush's body language, underscoring once again the importance of style in podium-to-podium clashes.
"I wasn't too happy with President Bush's looks during the debate," says David Brooks, a heating and air-conditioning repairman in Pennsburg, Pa. "I'm a strong Republican, but I do vote Democratic. I may do so in this election."
A GOP activist in Philadelphia, who asked not to be identified, was even more pointed: "I lost respect for [Bush] during the debates, because of the expressions on his face."
Others, though, are trying not to place too much meaning on one encounter. "Just because you're not a good speaker doesn't mean you're not a good president," says a young accountant in Worcester, Pa. "We don't know what goes on in the meetings he has behind the scenes at the White House."
Core Democrats, who had been fairly lukewarm about their candidate, seem to have regained some enthusiasm. Throughout the weekend, Kerry was greeted by screaming crowds, who erupted at mere mentions of Thursday's debate.
"I was getting so depressed," admits Sylvia Fernandez, a retired piano teacher attending a Kerry rally at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa. But now, she says: "I think that debate is going to really help."
After seeing the Massachusetts senator at a rally with Hispanic officials in Kissimmee, Fla. ("Kerry-Edwards: Una Nueva Esperanza."), Chris Howze and Herb Huddleston also proclaim themselves reassured.
Ms. Howze, an elementary school worker whose top issues are education and healthcare, says the foreign-policy themed debate "didn't do much" for her personally. But the positive reviews and Kerry's energetic appearance at the rally made her "feel better."
"All I'd been hearing from the naysayers is the guy's not electable," agrees Mr. Huddleston. To him, the debate showed Kerry is "intelligent enough and has enough command to bring the whole world in [to defeat terrorism]." Still, when asked if Kerry can win Florida, he hesitates. "It's going to be close."
• Sara B. Miller and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report