For a couple or three days Arizona was the epicenter of American politics. We’ve had quite a few presidential visits this year (lots of Big Republican dollars for Bush to chase), so we are used to some national attention and the related inconveniences that come with such events. But this week, Arizona hosted the traveling circuses that follow each campaign plus the huge influx of national media to cover the debates. We locals could watch the caravans of press vehicles and equipment setting up on the Arizona State University campus. Air Force One descended into the Phoenix airport. Rival motorcades wound their way through streets cleared of traffic (a truly unusual sight in this burg). And, of course, each campaign staged a post-debate rally.
The actual debate seemed considerably more subdued than the first two, way more so than the second where the candidates were almost going hand to hand. This time they were behind their podiums so it was more like firing at each other from fighting positions. Once again, I thought Kerry was more convincing than Bush on substance. Both candidates seemed to be reciting their key tag lines, slogans and factoids but Kerry usually went beyond his campaign verbiage to expand on his ideas for health care, the economy, minimum wage and other issues.
Bush managed to avoided a repetition of his terrible performance in the first debate. As in the second debate, he was able to speak without groping for words and seemed a bit more in command of his subject matter. But for the third time in a row, he seemed to present a different persona. This time he seemed oddly subdued, almost animatronic, He repeated the same lines (No Child Left Behind) to questions about the minimum wage and employment. He repeatedly cited Kerry’s 98 tax votes and 272 votes against tax cuts. It seemed as if he had little more to say beyond his campaign slogans. Kerry, too, used slogans (“I have a plan”, “first president in 70 years to lose jobs”) but these seemed more a springboard to further discussion. (Of course, being a Kerry supporter I am more likely to cut him slack, so I won’t claim to have some special objectivity here.)
I rate the third debate as pretty much of a tie. Kerry outclassed Bush on substance (see Will Saletan in Slate.com) but the image I take from the debate is that both candidates appealed to their base, stuck to their main messages and tried very hard not to make noticeable errors. The debate was disappointing in that there were no questions on the environment or energy policy, two issues that are as significant as any addressed in the questions that were asked, certainly more so than the questions about Catholic bishops, Bush’s faith and strong wives. Kerry maintained the initiative he gained in the first debate and held his own against Bush throughout the debate.
The Washington Post suggests that Kerry benefitted greatly from the caricature that the Bush campaign created of him. He turned out not to be the hapless Hamlet seen in so many Bush ads. Instead, he was articulate, well informed and did not hesitate to challenge Bush. In contrast, the supposedly strong, steady Bush looked unsure, petulant and weak. Kerry showed himself to be Bush’s equal in the first debate and did not give up that advantage in the subsequent debates. Kerry hasn’t cinched a lead but he sure broke Bush’s momentum.
My observations on the final debate are a bit skewed from watching it at a Kerry debate watch party not far from the debate site. Surrounded by an enthusiastic Kerry crowd, it was difficult to fully critique each candidate. Kerry always got applause, Bush always got boos and catcalls (including mine when he talked about Veterans Administration healthcare funding). But it was fun nonetheless. About 20 to 25 thousand attended the post debate rally, so I’m guessing that most of them were watching with me. I also got a kick out of the projection screen swinging in the breeze, distorting the candidates’ image. If the screen twisted one direction, Kerry grew in size; the other direction did the same for Bush. It added some visual interest. The slight discontinuity between the image and the audio was also a bit strange until I got used to it.
Kerry showed up about a half hour after the debate ended. He appeared to the tune of “No Retreat. No Surrender” and received a raucous greeting. Kerry looked very pleased with himself. He was stoked. The rally was pretty typical. Governor Napolitano introduced Theresa Heinz Kerry, who introduced John who introduced local officials and his entourage. He enthusiastically offered some campaign slogans and staples, encouraged us to get out and work for his election and shook hands before moving off stage to a catered tent.
Bush’s rally was at the local major league baseball stadium and probably went pretty much like Kerry’s except that the crowd was larger–around 35,000 but not a full house. The different settings reflect the nature of the two campaigns. The ball park is a monument to corporate welfare and insider influence, built over the objections of most county residents. It’s a huge, closed space well beyond human scale. Tempe Beach Park, where I watched the debate is modest, pleasant and open, a place of the people. Each venue seemed totally appropriate in my mind.
That was it. The sun had set on Arizona’s big day. All that was left was to negotiate traffic out of Tempe.