Short take on tonight’s debate:

The Democratic ticket won this one too, though not as decisively as the last one. Edwards had to prove he was a heavyweight, and he succeeded admirably. Cheney had to prove he was a human being, and he managed to come off as warmer than I’ve seen him (not saying much) and more gracious than the President’s performance (not saying much there either). That said, Edwards was not only more charismatic and more convincing, he did a better job of directly answering Gwen Ifil’s questions and, more importantly, those of the audience. His best line of attack, on foreign and domestic policy both, came in acknowledging that not only the challengers but the American people know better than to believe the Bush crew’s spin, and deserve better than to be shielded from the truth.

The Bush-Cheney Campaign continues to leave itself wide open to blistering criticism – more blistering than they’re actually getting – by stubbornly refusing to admit any mistakes, as if any contrition would make the house of cards collapse. How Cheney can tell the American people that he would conduct the Iraq war “exactly the same” way with a straight face is beyond me. So is why Edwards didn’t slam him even harder for it – or hit home harder on the shameful defunding of Homeland Security or the difference between the new jobs and the old ones we lost or the outrage of touting America’s record in El Salvador as a future model. And his answers on Israel and gay rights were expectedly frustrating.

But altogether, Edwards spoke clearly and resonantly, fought hard, and thought on his feet. Whereas Cheney projected strength and enthusiasm sometimes and at others seemed tired, disinterested, or just at a loss for words. And since when was it the Republicans who saw a career in government as the more patriotic choice? Whatever happened to Gingrich’s crew of “citizen-legislators” who supposedly hated Washington life so much they promised they’d sleep in their offices rather than get apartments? Lastly, we definitely won the closing statement this time (unlike Thursday) – Cheney’s “Vote for us or get blown up” just didn’t match Edwards’ exhortation to national greatness.

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Some quick thoughts on the debate, before hearing many talking heads:

I thought John Kerry did a very, very strong job. He managed to appear erudite but not snotty and resolute but not haughty. He even smiled and laughed a little. He managed to repeatedly hammer home a few points (more of which I agree with than not) without sounding repetitive: The war on terror shouldn’t be fought and won’t be won alone. Hussein was a threat based faced by the President with the support of Congress and the international community, and Bush misused the former and squandered the latter. Iraq wasn’t central to the War on Terror until Bush made it a training ground for terrorists. Being resolute isn’t enough if you aren’t right. Screwing up the war is worse than screwing up the words. Bush has been crimminally negligent in shoring up Homeland Security and fighting nuclear proliferation. Of course, I would have liked to see Kerry taking a stronger, more progressive stance on Iraq going back years now, I’d like to see him fighting harder for an immigration policy which doesn’t treat immigrants as terrorists, I’d like to hear more about fighting terrorism by fighting poverty, about AIDS as a threat to international security – the list goes on. But this was a much stronger case for Kerry as commander-in-chief than we got at the Convention, and I think a good chunk of the genuinely undecided will agree.

The best I could say for Bush is he certainly managed to project a sense of sincerity. Arguing that your opponent is a flip-flopper packs a lot less punch in real time in a debate than in retrospect in a newspaper article. And he didn’t find many particularly creative ways to say so. While Bush argued hard (and seemingly unnecessarily) for the chance to rebut several of Kerry’s rebuttals, much of the time it was to dodge the actual question. We heard the word liberty a lot from Bush, but we didn’t get much of a case for his presidency and we got less of a plan for it. And the outrageous moments were hard to count: Bush repeatedly implying that criticizing military policy during war disqualifies you to set it; Bush arguing that protecting America as well as Kerry wants to would be too expensive; Bush confusing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (isn’t that why they rehearse); every cut away of Bush smirking or looking petulant.