So who won this first debate? By several criteria, Kerry did. The question is, will it matter?
Criteria 1: Style.
Clearly, throughout the debate, Kerry looked more presidential than Bush, who looked often on the defensive and not in command of the issues. I was watching CNN, and they too often showed the split screen that apparently was "illegal". We can speculate on why the major networks violated this agreed-upon rule. But it was clear that Bush looked smug, pissed, upset, and simply unpresidential compared to the always composed Kerry (thankfully there were no "sighs" in this debate). Body language overall was in favor of Kerry. He was standing poised and confident throughout. Bush was leaning, slumped into the podium, almost too relaxed in talking about issues of great import. Kerry's height also helped him too...he seemed to stand above the podium more with his upper body, compared to Bush whose upper body seemed comparably smaller and less imposing. Is this a shallow read of style over substance? Yes, but unfortunately, American voters care much about these stylistic tidbits.
Criteria 2: Substance and Issues.
Kerry was clear, firm and knowledgeable about all the issues. He struck a good balance about saying what was wrong with the Bush regime and what he would do differently. As Phil has already pointed out, if the main attack on Kerry by Bush was portraying him as a flip-flopping, indecisive, indecipherable politician, Kerry showed to be a different candidate. Bush's strategy was to keep repeating the same message over and over: "mixed messages" send the "wrong" message to our troops and "enemies". He didn't seem as lucid about the issues. How will the voters interpret this? Will they prefer consistent messaging that Bush repeated? Or Kerry's more lucid approach?
Criteria 3: Punchlines.
Again, I give Kerry the edge here, though neither candidate said anything particularly memorable. Kerry's good lines included: "We didn't need that tax cut; America needed to be made safer" and "You can be certain, and be wrong". However, he missed MAJOR opportunities to attack Bush on the whole "Mission Accomplished" battleship stunt. At one point in the debate, Bush said, "I'll bring the troops home when the mission's accomplished". To which Kerry should have immediately responded in his rebuttal: "Mr. President, you said the mission was accomplished when you wore that flight suit. You misled us then, and you continue to do so. I know something about failed missions in wars, and I will only say the mission is accomplished when it really is."
Will it matter?
That's the biggest question of all. I think it will, regardless of what the polls will say. This was supposed to be Bush's biggest strength (foreign policy), and I think enough doubt was cast tonight to make a difference. On to Tuesday with the Cheney vs. Edwards match-up!