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Paul Begala's Debate Blog: Round 3

Editor's Note: Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's political debate program "Crossfire," is providing a view from the left on the second presidential debate through this blog. Follow along as he shares his observations and send us your own by typing them in the "Share Your Comments" box to the right.

A good debate

CNN's Paul Begala
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Posted: 10:48 p.m. ET

Good debate. The press will say it's a draw, but I think Kerry bested Bush -- or rather Bush made a few errors. Two words for President Bush: anger management. He spent much of the debate nearly yelling at the audience.

About two-thirds of the way through he calmed down, used a little humor. But overall he hectored more than visited with people. Kerry was much more conversational, certainly not the pedantic, pompous senator some expected.

Bush can't name a mistake

Posted: 10:34 p.m. ET

Kerry's going right at Bush on the issue of mistakes. He's hammering Bush for the way he went to war. Then he admitted he's made mistakes in how he's talked about the war, while Bush made mistakes in how he went to war.

Bush was asked to name three mistakes he's made. He can't name one. Breathtaking arrogance. He's had the hardest job in the world for almost four years and he cannot name a single mistake. Either he's the Second Coming of the Messiah, or he's so damned arrogant he's dangerous.

Kerry 'heartfelt' on religion

Posted: 10:29 p.m. ET

Missouri has a very strong pro-life movement, well represented tonight. The woman who asked Kerry about federal funding for abortion was poised and clear and strong. A far cry from the hysterics you usually see in the national media when abortion is covered.

Kerry's answer is sensitive. It's one of the few times he's talked about his religion in public -- and it's clearly heartfelt.

Bush says, "I'm trying to decipher that." I (obviously) like Kerry. But even still I thought his answer was sensitive, and Bush's attempt at humor was callous.

The Bush litmus test

Posted: 10:26 p.m. ET

Supreme Court: A guy asked Bush who he would appoint to the Supreme Court. "I'm not tellin'," he said. Good use of humor. But I cringed when he said, "I want 'em all votin' for me." Is that a reference to Florida? To the Supreme Court case that put him in office?

He says he'll only appoint judges who oppose slavery. Wow, that's a great litmus test. Only anti-slavery judges for Bush. There goes David Duke's vote.

Bush incoherent on stem cell question

Posted: 10:22 p.m. ET

Careful, senator. A woman asked him about embryonic stem cell research from what is plainly a very pro-life position.

Good. Kerry is showing great respect for her values and her religion. And he's plainly energized by the prospects of the research.

Bush just said categorically, "Embryonic stem cell research destroys a life. I am the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research."

Huh? He said it's killing, but he's funding it? That's incoherent. That's our Bush.

Sneak and peek

Posted: 10:17 p.m. ET

Kerry just said he is against "sneak and peek" searches under the Patriot Act. How much you want to bet Bush thinks "sneak and peek" is a panty raid?

The weird turns pro

Posted: 10:14 p.m. ET

Hunter S. Thompson famously said, "When the going gets tough, the weird turns pro." Bush is definitely a pro.

Kerry referred to a timber company that pays Bush $84. I have no idea what he's talking about -- and neither did Bush. After ridiculing Kerry's argument by asking incredulously, "I own a timber company?" He paused for an awkwardly long time. Then he asked Charlie Gibson, "You wanna buy some wood?"

Definitely weird.

Kerry hits on 'Orwellian' language

Posted: 10:08 p.m. ET

Kerry's giving you the sense he's the Man with the Plan. He just ripped through his three-point jobs plan. Now he's into his health care plan. If voters want a plan, he's there for them. It'll be interesting to see if voters come away with the sense that he's got good ideas.

Kerry clearly cares a lot about the environment, but hasn't talked about it much in the campaign. He nailed Bush for the Orwellian language Bush uses on the environment, education, etc.

In the middle of his answer, Kerry pointed to "Nicki" in the audience and brought her back in. Nice touch.

'Off-road diesel engines?'

Posted: 10:06 p.m. ET

Environment: Bush began by simply saying, "Off-road diesel engines." Huh? Where's the verb, sir? He's throwing out a lot of jargon and Orwellian language, like "Healthy Forest Initiative."

The question was about air and water, and he's talking about how chopping down trees is the answer.

Kerry gets honest laugh

Posted: 10:01 p.m. ET

Kerry just got the first honest laugh -- and it was not an attack line. It was an affectionate reference to Charlie Gibson, saying Charlie would be the only person other than Bush and Kerry who'd pay the higher tax rate under Kerry.

Remember when Bush jumped ugly with Charlie? I said the audience wouldn't like it -- the audience identifies with Charlie. Now Kerry has shared a laugh with Charlie -- much more human, much more pleasant.

Kerry soothes voters on spending

Posted: 9:59 p.m. ET

Kerry was asked a very direct question. A guy asked him to look into the camera and promise he won't raise taxes on people making less than $200,000. He said yes. Unequivocally. Can't get any clearer than that.

He also said he's trimmed back on some of his favorite spending programs, which should be soothing to voters worried that he's a big spender.

Bush challenged on spending

Posted: 9:57 p.m. ET

Bush's response to Charlie Gibson's question about how he would cut the deficit in half: He said he'd control congressional spending. But wait a minute, isn't that the guy who hasn't ever vetoed a single spending bill?

Bush was asked a tough question about why he hasn't vetoed a single spending bill. This is a direct challenge to Bush's vote with his base. Bush is nothing if not in tune with his conservative base. He's blaming everyone but himself for his deficit.

Kerry defended his health care plan against the attack that it was big government by saying, with a chuckle, that it's totally voluntary. He was conversational.

Bush hits the 'L-word'

Posted: 9:52 p.m. ET

Bush is clearly programmed to get on the L-word. Kerry's response is to say Bush isn't a compassionate conservative.

You can bet you will hear Bush repeat the L-Word again and again tonight -- and through November 2.

Bush just said, "The National Journal has rated Sen. Kennedy the number one most liberal senator."

Mr. President, you're not running against Ted Kennedy. You're running against John Kerry.

A woman just put Kerry on the spot over Edwards being a trial lawyer. Kerry's ready for it. Says he has a plan for tort reform, but more important, a plan to lower the health care costs for folks in the audience.

Bush is licking his chops. He truly hates trial lawyers.

This is a strikingly negative debate. I'm very surprised. Bush just ripped into Kerry, then finished with a wink. He's clearly feeling like a cocky frat-boy.

First domestic question

Posted: 9:47 p.m. ET

Kerry again cited a Bush broken promise from the 2000 campaign, reminding people that he said in 2000 that importing drugs from Canada made sense. Kerry is strong on this one -- it's much more a Democratic issue.

Kerry's on offense. Bush is on defense.

First domestic question: Why, Mr. President, did you ban importation of prescription drugs from Canada?

Bush's answer raised the lame defense that they're not safe. Sure, that's why all those Canadians are dropping like flies every time they pop a Xanax.

Bush calms down

Posted: 9:42 p.m. ET

Bush has finally gotten control of himself. He cited his Homeland Security budget in response to Kerry's criticism that Bush preferred a tax cut to homeland security. And he's doing it in a conversational way. Maybe his outburst a moment ago got it out of his system.

Kerry not speaking 'Senate-ese'

Posted: 9:41 p.m. ET

Did Kerry just say, "we got a whole buncha countries" and, "Lookit...?"

He's actually speaking American, not Senate-ese.

Kerry launched a guided missile, saying that if Missouri were a nation, it'd be the third largest country in our coalition. Beautiful. Clintonian. Instead of burying us in facts and figures, he had one telling, killer anecdote.

Relax, Mr. President

Posted: 9:40 p.m. ET

Wow. The first moment of the debate.

Charlie Gibson tried to ask Bush a follow-up question, but Bush jumped him, almost yelling. He went right up to the edge of losing it. People do not like it when politicians hammer nice, pleasant moderators like Charlie Gibson.

Bush needs to switch to decaf. His answer on the draft was desperate and rambling. Relax, Mr. President. Enjoy yourself.

Kerry's response seems much calmer, more reasoned. He ran through a list of generals and admirals who support him.

The 'Internets?'

Posted: 9:37 p.m. ET

Bush just said: "I hear there's rumors on the Internets." Is there some secret second Internet I don't know about? Perhaps that's where Bush gets the information that tells him things are so peachy in Iraq and the economy is strong. He's living in his own private Idaho, apparently reading things on his own private Internet.

Kerry is walking closer to the audience than Bush is. There's a piece of red tape that the candidates are not supposed to cross. You can't see it on TV, but if Kerry's ignoring it in order to get closer to the audience, good for him.

The town hall format requires the candidates to actually have a conversation -- not with each other, but rather with the audience members.

Bush pleased with himself

Posted: 9:31 p.m. ET

Bush seemed extremely pleased with himself to be able to tell you about how the generals said, "Yes, sir Mr. President." But he didn't respond to Kerry's point that Bush ignored the Army chief of staff, Gen. Shinseki, who said they'd need 200,000 troops to successfully occupy Iraq. Because the truth is, he ignored Gen Shinseki, despite his comment that he always listens to his generals.

Lower your voice

Posted: 9:28 p.m. ET

Bush really needs to lower the register of his voice. He's pleading, trying to hard, almost yelling. He bit off and spat out the name of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi like it was a stale piece of garlic bread.

Kerry's counter was more calm than he was a few minutes ago. And a lot more calm than Bush. All over America people are asking, "Who is this angry man, and what have they done with that pleasant Mr. Bush?"

Kerry on fire

Posted: 9:22 p.m. ET

Kerry's using comments from GOP Senators Lugar and Hagel against Bush. His quotes are accurate, and they hurt Bush. What do you suppose Bush is thinking? Whatever it is, you can imagine it's not publishable on a family blog.

Kerry is on fire. He's putting the wood to Bush like a wayward pledge at the Deke house. Bush just said the Iraqi finance minister was optimistic, but then he turned on the TV and it made him pessimistic. Huh? If he's that big a weenie, what's he doing in Baghdad?

Angry responses

Posted: 9:17 p.m. ET

The first question to Bush was, like the one to Kerry, right at his vulnerability. Bush, too, has his answer down pat. But he's too angry, he's speechifying, his voice is rising. He shouldn't be hectoring and yelling at these people. Why isn't Bush connecting like the genial governor I knew in Texas?

Kerry's response to Bush is just about as angry as Bush's. Both of these guys need to be more conversational. They're jacked up on adrenaline and, to tell you the truth, looks like they just don't like each other.

Kerry prepared for flip-flop question

Posted: 9:12 p.m. ET

The first question went right to Kerry's greatest weakness: Are you wishy-washy? Kerry seems to want it -- he obviously has prepared this one many times. He's going through issues quickly: Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind. Even more than the specifics, he's trying to project a sense of strength and certainty. He doesn't seem at all nervous.

Bush, too, wants this question. He's gone through his litany of Kerry flip-flops. But there's great risk in being too negative. I think he'd be better off doing fewer specifics on Kerry's flip-flops and instead telling the questioner what he stands for.

He said his tax cut is "right up the middle class." If I were a more scatological person I might take it the wrong way.

Sox win a good omen

Posted: 8:33 p.m. ET

We're 30 minutes before the debate, and I can tell you, John Kerry is one happy man. No, not because the latest Time magazine poll shows the race tied. Not even because the latest Associated Press poll shows Kerry up by 4. No, Kerry's happy because his beloved Red Sox just defeated the Anaheim Angels with a dramatic, 10th inning walk-off home run by David Ortiz.

Both Kerry and Bush are huge baseball fans, and baseball fans are superstitious. I'm sure Kerry sees the Sox win as a good omen.

Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's political debate program "Crossfire," worked in the Clinton administration as counselor to the president and served as his principal public spokesman.

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