What did you think?
Here are some of my impressions, in somewhat random order. I didn't want to live-blog it, I preferred to let the debate sink in and percolate a bit. I'm cross-posting to Dean Nation and my Red State and my DailyKos diaries as well.
Bush scored a point with the Korean multi-lateral issue, rather than Kerry's focus on bilateral talks. While its true that Bush could not convincing articulate why multilateral talks including China were superior, neither could Kerry articulate why they were inferior, and on that issue, the burden of proof is with Kerry to demonstrate why things should change. True, N. Korea went nuclear on Bush's watch, but what's Kerry going to DO about it on his watch?
Kerry's point that 30-some countries had a greater WMD capability than Iraq was, as Josh puts it, a hammer-blow indeed. It completely shut down the Bush line that invading Iraq was justified because Saddam was a threat.
I found Bush too repetitive on the "Kerry is inconsistent" thing - Kerry took the time to respond each time, and overall Bush ended up retreating to that point anyway, making it seem like he'd run out of material. Did he prepare for this debate or not? By falling back on that issue, and giving Kerry more chances to refute it with different emphasis, he just ended up giving Kerry more time to insulate himself. In past debates Bush would have been more subtle, and let "evidence" make the accusation. Here, Bush just tried to bludgeon his point across, and Kerry's poise in answering it each time strengthened him.
Bush's point that Iranian sanctions didn't begin on his watch is well-taken. It's Kerry's fault really for not articulating what he'd do specifically. The whole Iranian discussion was short on specifics from both sides, which translates to Bush's advantage, since it's Kerry's burden of proof.
Kerry's point about Tora Bora was also effective, and again Bush had no real response. Simply put, we diverted resources from Afghanistan to Iraq - and this fact clearly put Bush on the defensive. Having to exclaim "I know Osama bin Laden attacked us" raise the question immediately, why haven't you even spoken is name, then? Again paraphrasing Josh, national security is supposed to be Bush's core strength, and the fact that Kerry can make these critiques to which Bush has essentially no answer does not bode well for him.
I liked Kerry's emphasis on Darfur - all Bush has done is send humanitarian aid (much needed of course). He'd be more aggressive in helping the African Union intervene. Should American troops be needed, though, we have a problem again due to over-stretch - and nice emphasis on why he wants to enlarge the military for non-Iraq missions. A moral duty, indeed. Bush responds weakly, but doesn't lay out a specific plan of how he'd intervene beyond mere humanitarian aid.
"What's the message going to be -- Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion?" Bush's rejoinder to Kerry's claim that he can deliver foreign troops is devastating - Bush's only real hit of the evening, but a very good jujitsu of Kerry's own campaign rhetoric against him. Kerry recovered but not gracefully.
"We busted the AQ Khan network." Sorry, Mr. President. That's a lie. The reality is that Bush looked the other way while Pakistani-national-hero Khan walked away untouched for his role in disseminating the nuclear materials that Bush now claims to be concerned about. The fact that Bush cut funding for proliferation control also resonates here. It's hard for me to gauge how well Kerry prosecuted the case against Bush on this score to the public jury, because I know more of the detail than has made the cut to the national media. I suspect that most people don't know the backstory of AQ Khan and thus take Bush at his word here, but Bush's inability to address Kerry's funding critique and the 13-year statistic (which Bush never disputed) will hurt him. Bush didn't raise missile defense as a counter, either, which surprised me - though Kerry would likely have been ready by pointing out that the defense system has never been successfully tested and probably won't work.
I really enjoyed the friendly platitudes between the candidates in the middle, with warm respect about each others' family. I find it humbling to a degree. I'm not such a cynic that I think Bush or Kerry was being insincere. And I think it's necessary to resolve to try and reduce the projection of one-sided partisan bile onto the candidates themselves. I bet Bush and Kerry would be shocked to read some of what is written about their opponents in the diaries at Red State or Daily Kos. When I eventually launch my own Scoop site, I'm going to have to remember this part of the debate as a guide for moderation of tone.
Kerry clearly won, at least initially in the public eye. Bush is clearly not used to being questioned, even supposed tough dogs like O'Reilly and Russert have never really held him to the kind of scrutiny that, say, Howard Dean had to endure. Given that Bush is insulated from opposing views within his administration and cocooned from protestors on the campaign trail (attendees to Bush events are required to sign loyalty pledges), he's grown quite soft. His irritation, especially on split-screen when Kerry was speaking, made him look petty and insecure - akin to the glance-at-the-watch or the exaggerated-sigh. Just remember that the polls called the first debate for Gore, too, but the pundits inverted that judgment a few days later, so I'm still pessimistic as to whether Kerry's performance really did him any favors. Given the conservative blogger consensus that Bush did not do well either, though, I think that Bush's campaign strategy of ignore the swing vote and focus on exciting the base seems rather wise in hindsight.