It is too early to call a winner. First-night voter reactions are a poor predictor of a debate's ultimate effect. In 1976, few voters caught the significance of Ford's of premature liberation of Eastern Europe. As Howard Kurtz reminds us, even the press corps was slow on the uptake: The Washington Post buried the gaffe deep inside its initial coverage. Then the story took on its own momentum, and the polls showed increasing trouble for Ford. Four years ago, the early verdict was that the first debate was a tie for Bush and Gore. But after the comedy routines about Gore's sighs, Bush came out ahead.
So what could shift perceptions of this debate? Democrats probably want television replays of Bush's long pauses, hoping that they will call to mind his initial reaction to 9/11. Republicans will mine Kerry's comments for more contradictions. The debate has ended. The battle to define the debate has begun.