First presidential debate

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin was among those who were pleasantly surprised by the first presidential debate.

(Kunin) Just when you conclude that the political game is rigged by money, spin, and sound bites, the first televised political debate made the contest between these two Titans come alive.

It was riveting and revealing. There was no single sentence or body language that declared one or the other of the candidates for President the winner. But there were clear differences between the two, which the audience could see without the filter of their handlers.

It was riveting because we didn’t know what would happen next: what the questions would be and how each man would respond. No amount of debate training could deprive us of that. And for the first time, we saw the contrasts and were offered a clear choice.

Those who agreed with President Bush no doubt continued to wave the banner for him with renewed vigor. The Kerry supporters, however, were both relieved and thrilled. Their man had come through with short succinct phrases and, most of all, with the confidence of a man who could be President.

The burden of proof was on Kerry to show that he had the strength and conviction to lead the country. His stature and ramrod straight posture helped, but so did his declaration that we pursued the wrong enemy: Sadam Hussein instead of Osama bin Laden. He distinguished himself from Bush by pointing out the nuclear threats of North Korea and Iran, answering without a pause that our biggest threat was nuclear proliferation.

Bush held his own: no malapropisms, no temper, even though he sometimes looked peeved. He stuck to his refrain that America is safer and that he is the leader who could keep us safe. Bush continued to be more skillful in looking directly at the camera, while Kerry kept his eyes fixed on Jim Lehrer.

This debate will not decide the election, but it did what debates are supposed to do – give the American people a straight-on view of what the candidates do and say when they are directly confronted with one another. Face to face, there was a sizzle between them. But they were also less nasty than in their separate diatribes. They showed mutual respect and praised each other’s daughters.

Most importantly, they showed respect for the voters by facing the critical issue of the security of our children and grandchildren, which will lie in their hands.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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