October 09, 2004

Bush and Kerry Put on a Lively Show

Friday's rematch between President Bush and John Kerry proved to be a livelier affair, and a more revealing show, than their first debate.

The big difference, of course, was the town-hall format that surrounded the two candidates with 140 voters, some of whom got to ask the questions they had brought.

"Hats off to these questioners," said NBC's Tim Russert afterward. "They framed this election and this debate better than I've ever seen before."

Another advantage: This 90-minute faceoff unleashed the presidential rivals from the lecterns of their first debate, to actually move about the floor with their wireless mikes and engage with the ordinary citizens before them.

Occasionally, they also engaged with each other in ways they opted not to do before.

"Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President," Kerry said sharply to Bush in one early confrontation.

This was a much-awaited second act, after the Sept. 30 debate in Miami, where Kerry was widely credited with outperforming Bush.

In the theater-in-the-round at Washington University in St. Louis, ABC News' Charles Gibson, the moderator, served smoothly. With schoolmasterish half-frames propped on his nose, he identified each questioner, then let the exchange happen. Occasionally, he voiced a followup question.

Both candidates seemed to relish the chance to play to a group (and, afterward, to do what politicians do best, shake hands with everybody).

Kerry seemed quite at home with the format. Bush, clearly improved from the first debate, was fired up, too, though at times overheated in his delivery. After listening to Kerry at one point, he bulldozed through Gibson's setup, declaring, "I gotta answer this," and never looked back.

As with the first debate, reaction shots were interesting to note.

Again, Kerry appeared composed, often scribbling notes as Bush responded to questions.

Bush, who during the first debate had often been caught by the cameras looking peeved at things Kerry said, made a joking reference to it Friday: "That answer," he said when Kerry finished one response, "almost made me want to scowl."

Even so, he was still hardput to suppress displays of annoyance. At times he was seen in close-up listening with eyes narrowed and lips pursed.

Along with learning what the candidates had to say and how they would say it, at least a few viewers came to Friday's debate with an odd but tantalizing issue in mind: The cut of Bush's jacket across his back. Soon enough, they concluded it was smooth and well-tailored.

This was in contrast to the first debate, when a rear-positioned camera glimpsed what, in replay, looked to be a rectangular lump between the President's shoulder blades and even a cord traveling up to his right shoulder.

Just a happenstance pucker in the fabric? Or was it a hidden receiver equipping Bush to take cues through a hidden earpiece from someone offstage? That was the rumor zipping across the Internet, as reported by the webzine Salon.com.

The White House denied that Bush had been wired.

After Friday night, suspicious viewers would have to probe elsewhere for intrigue.

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