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Political observers say both candidates performed well

There were no race-altering gaffes. No knockout punches. And none of those annoying stylistic ticks that can hijack a presidential debate.

What political scientists who watched last night's debate saw was a matchup in which both President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry performed well, reinforced their supporters' high opinions of them, and acted presidential. The back-and-forth between the two elevated the race for president, taking the candidates beyond the negative television spots of recent weeks into the realm of substance, analysts said.

Which was far more than some of them had anticipated.

"It was less agonizing than I expected," said Wayne Fields, director of the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St Louis. "There weren't any surprises. Neither one of them made any terrible stumbles, so what we were left with was the fundamental contrast before us this year, between a president who believes that certain things, like 9/11, happen, and those things give you a vision that you pursue unwaveringly. And you've got Kerry's notion that you learn and grow as you move ahead, and you adapt and respond."

Kerry had the most to gain from the debate, Fields and others said, and "he gained some of it."

"He did it in part simply by being able to stand on the same stage and say, 'Much of what we are disagreeing about was [over] the right way to do things," Fields said. "He could undermine the notion that he was flip-flopping, which the president returned to over and over again. But just being able to appear presidential and knowledgeable and to go aggressively at the president without it being fake the way [Democratic nominee] Al Gore did it four years ago, in a way that didn't seem mean-spirited at all."

Kerry needed to dispel the notion, pushed vigorously by the president and his supporters, that he was a flip-flopper who constantly shifted positions, especially on Iraq. Most of the analysts agreed that Kerry stated his views more succinctly and vehemently than he often has in the past, transcending the flip-flop label despite the president's repeated attempts to pin it on him.

Several analysts said Bush seemed defensive at times. "He's turtling," said Garrison Nelson, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, who was surprised by what he called the consistent toughness of Kerry's statements. "Bush keeps pulling his shoulders up like a turtle," Nelson said. "He is not happy about this. There is no cheery little smile, no little winks. Kerry is coming out a lot harder than Bush anticipated. Bush is still on message, but the body language -- he is really tight, he is pulling his shoulders up, and is in a real defensive posture. He's under attack and he hasn't been under attack and he's not used to this, and he's not handling it well."

Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston College who studies nonverbal communication, said the starkest difference between the two men came during their closing statements. For much of the debate, each of them blinked between 30 and 50 times a minute, Tecce said, which demonstrates a normal level of stress. Kerry maintained that level during his closing statement -- blinking 49 times a minute -- while Bush blinked 111 times per minute.

Bush looked down a lot more than Kerry did, Tecce said, and "by not looking up and directly into the camera as much as Kerry, he wasn't projecting himself as well." Bush, meanwhile, was more animated, he said, which could appeal to audiences or turn them off. "You can spin it and say George Bush showed more emotion and compassion, or you can also say John Kerry appeared a little more statesmanlike," Tecce said.

But the debate alone would not shift many voters' views, some political scientists said.

"I think it was a reaffirming experience for listeners," said Stephen Hess, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "People who went in intending to vote for Kerry will have thought that he did well, and the same will be true of those who were the Bush supporters. But if the status quo is maintained, that is actually good for the president," because he went into last night up in the polls.

Hess acknowledged that Kerry had achieved something he had to last night -- showing voters he could be articulate and firm in his beliefs -- and that moved the debate more toward a referendum on the president.

"The president had been so incredibly skillful up to this point in trying to make the campaign a referendum on the challenger, so to that degree [Kerry] righted the situation somewhat," Hess said. "So that was undoubtedly helpful. But still, I must say, I would be surprised if there were any major changes in the polls based on this."

The discussion and analysis following the debate will be just as important in forming voters' conclusions as the debate itself, said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College. Fowler said she thought Bush seemed "a little off balance" during the debate, but Kerry didn't deliver "a knockout punch."

She was unwilling to declare a winner.

"I have seen enough public opinion data over the years to know the way commentators talk about debates the day after debates has an enormous impact," she said, "so I can't say what the final outcome is because I don't know how they are going to spin this."

In any case, the evening reinforced the importance of presidential debates, said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

"This debate let the American public see the candidates side by side, and not just in one consecutive negative ad after another on television," said MacManus.

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