Q&A: Second presidential debate

Bush was on the defensive whenever Iraq war was the topic, but he did much better on domestic issues.

The Christian Science Monitor's Liz Marlantes attended the second presidential debate in St. Louis Friday night. She gives her thoughts in this Monitor Q & A.

What would you say about the candidates' performances this evening?

I thought it was an intense exchange - full of attacks. Both candidates were in attack mode and that's striking, because in a town hall format there's something borderline uncomfortable about that -- it's such an intimate setting, with the audience so close to the candidates. There were very few moments of levity, maybe three or fours times when they cracked a joke. The rest of it was really an onslaught.

How do you feel the candidates did with the townhall format?

I was a little surprised by Bush's performance. After he was criticized last time for seeming irritable, I was expecting a more genial performance tonight. But that was not the overall thrust of tonight. Both were very aggressive. In some ways, Bush was more on the defensive during the foreign policy section -- which was dominated, not surprisingly, by Iraq. I thought Kerry did fine. I was struck by the way he immediately turned every answer back to Bush's record and kept the pressure on. I think the bulk of the debate was more focused on Bush than Kerry, and that was to Kerry's advantage.

What word would you use to describe President Bush's performance tonight. How about Sen. Kerry?

One word's pretty hard. For Bush, maybe "heated," but I think many people will see it as passionate. Perhaps the best word to describe Kerry's performance was steady.

What did the audiences' questions reveal about the issues that are on the minds of Americans?

The biggest issues are obviously still Iraq and the economy. But a number of other issues came up as well, from the environment to stem cell research. I thought the abortion question was quite interesting - and a telling moment for both candidates. Both found ways to mollify their base and simultaneously reach out to the middle, with carefully selected phrases and images. But Kerry's answer was longer - and probably, to some viewers, seemed more political. Bush gave a more direct, simple response.

What were Senator Kerry's strongest issues? What about President Bush?

One thing I've been struck by: We've heard so much that international issues are Bush's strength, and that domestic issues are Kerry's strength. But, tonight, Bush may have done better on domestic issues, and less well on foreign policy. This has been a tough week for the administration, with the Duelfer report on weapons of mass destruction, and the comments by Paul Bremer. The job numbers weren't great, either, but Bush was on stronger footing in the domestic area - hitting Kerry on taxes, for example. We'll see more of that in next week's debate, which focuses on domestic issues. Without that Iraq dynamic in the next debate, it will present a really different landscape - will be quite interesting to watch.

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