Before I read other reactions to the debates online this morning, I'm going to post my own before my impressions get skewed by whatever is the conventional wisdom this morning.
Because of a prior committment, I missed the first half of the debate. At about 9:30pm Eastern, I tuned in on my car radio, and what I heard wasn't good for Mr. Bush. He's never been a terrific public speaker, but what I heard of him sounded unusually disorganized, unprepared, and tired. There were long pauses between the question and his answer, as if he were struggling to think of what to say. I know he usually goes to bed early, but it seems like on the day of a debate, maybe one could catch a midafternoon nap in order to stay awake a little later.
It also sounded to me like Bush was largely on the defensive. In a debate, you have to do whatever you can to turn things around on your opponent. But in this debate, when Kerry said "It wasn't Saddam Hussein who attacked us on 9/11, it was Osama Bin Laden," Bush's rather pitiful response was to say "I know it was Osama Bin Laden who attacked us. Nobody has to tell me that." It reminded me of Nathan Thurm, the sweaty, nervous, cigarette-puffing lawyer Martin Short used to play on Saturday Night Live's old "60 Minutes" parodies--"I know that. Don't you think I know that? It's so funny that you would think I didn't know that...."
I'm told that the first half of the debate went much better for Bush, which would explain why whatever analysis I have heard this morning seems to be proclaiming it a draw. The first half must have gone extraordinarily well for Bush, because what I heard was not a draw by any means. Kerry sounded relaxed and in command of the facts, and much more authentic than Al Gore sounded in his bizarre 2000 performances.
On the other hand, legend has it that those who listened to the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 thought that Nixon was the clear winner, while those who watched on television thought Kennedy won. Nobody will be judging this debate by how it sounded on the radio. As I said yesterday, the medium is the message, and the medium is television. The only important question is: what will be the lasting visual image left by last night's debate?