Kerry Starts To Sway The Undecided
Presidential Challenger Seen As Better Debater - But Will
The Don't-Knows Want Him In The White House?

By Oliver Burkeman in New York
The Guardian - UK
The first head-to-head clash between George Bush and John Kerry left America's crucial constituency of undecided voters broadly agreeing that the Democrat had won - but still far from unanimous that they wanted him as president.
In swing states across the country yesterday, voters who have yet to make up their minds told the Guardian that President Bush's long pauses and irritated facial expressions had contrasted poorly with his opponent's poise. Some, however, said they still found Mr Kerry unclear when it came to his views on Iraq.
"Kerry won," conceded James Scalzo, 61, a retired defence contractor from Michigan and a registered Republican who voted for Mr Bush in 2000. "It was a question of style. He came across as more relaxed, more in control - Bush seemed a little agitated; a little nervous. But I'm really not too enthused by either candidate. I guess I still dislike Kerry more than I do Bush."
As Democratic campaigners hurried to prepare material to exploit footage of the president's reactions, Sharon Trenoweth, a registered independent from New Hampshire, felt she had seen those facial expressions somewhere before. "You know when you're little and your dad says, 'Do it because I said so.' [Bush] was like that: 'I know what I'm talking about, I'm the boss, and that's that.'"
Mr Kerry might have seemed aloof, "but we don't necessarily have to have a buddy. We want someone who's intelligent. Kerry didn't get me excited before, and he still doesn't, but now I think he's the best option," said Ms Trenoweth, who used to work in the defence industry and now paints New England folk art for a living.
She was glued to the debate "like the Superbowl", she said. The sporting comparison was reflected in the deluge of instant post-match analysis.
A CNN survey of viewers found that 57% felt Mr Kerry performed better, with 37% favouring Mr Bush. But while 60% thought the Democrat expressed himself more clearly - a blow for Republican efforts to portray him as a "flip-flopper" - 54% still felt the incumbent would be the tougher leader if re-elected.
In Miami, where the debate took place on Thursday night, Nory Acosta, 24, a law student, was one of many undecideds who preferred Mr Kerry's style but remained in the Bush camp on the Iraq issue. "Maybe his answers didn't come as quickly as they might have come, but I think at this point there really isn't much choice but to carry on - otherwise it might pose a problem in terms of the impression in the rest of the world," she said.
Her concern for projecting a consistent international image mirrored a point Mr Bush made repeatedly in the debate. "I know we're not going to achieve our objective if we send mixed signals to our troops, our friends, the Iraqi citizens," he said.
But the president also found support among swing voters who thought the rest of the world's views should not matter. "George W Bush is the president of the United States, and to me, the United States should come first, rather than the world," said Vaughn Hoovler, 36, the owner of a metal-pressing company in Mansfield, Ohio, and a rare example of an undecided voter who called the debate for the president.
"I thought George did a wonderful job," said Mr Hoovler. "I was confident he knew where he was at, and what he had to do to move forward. Yeah, he looked angry, but he was clear and to the point."
However, Mr Kerry's insistence on taking an internationalist approach to US foreign policy found widespread support, even among those leaning towards Mr Bush. "He vacillates back and forth [on Iraq], but I think he's right in that regard," said Mr Scalzo, while Ms Acosta - though declaring herself more sympathetic to the incumbent - said she "did actually agree with Kerry on that point".
In the debate, Mr Kerry had condemned Mr Bush for failing even to hold "the kind of statesmanlike summits that pull people together ... In fact, he's done the opposite - he pushed them away".
Mr Kerry's task will be to turn the good impression he left on Thursday night into a conviction on the part of undecided voters that his specific policy proposals are superior. For Therese Safford, an employee of the Great Lakes Tribal Council in Wisconsin, he seemed to be well on the way. "Kerry sounds like he has a plan. I'm sure the president has a plan, too," she added, wryly, "but he didn't seem to know what the plan was". The Iraq war only took place, she suspected, "because he felt he needed to finish the unfinished business left by his father."
Mr Bush's curious use of language drew mockery from one influential corner of cable television, the Daily Show on Comedy Central, which is watched by many young adults. The president's assertion that "we are facing a group of folks who have such hatred in their hearts, they'll strike anywhere" made al-Qaida sound more like a harmless gathering of diners at an Italian restaurant, observed the presenter Jon Stewart.
"We're facing a group of folks? A group of folks is what you run into at the Olive Garden," he said.
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