The important thing to recognize about the debates are that: a) there are a number of them--what matters is the cumulative effect of all three, not anything particular that happens in one; b the folks we care about in re. the debate are very small...5-10% of the electorate at most, many of whom probably didn't watch or only flipped by and; c) so national polls of the whole electorate are kind of silly. If you want to know what the debate impact is, the question isn't whether one guy "won": this isn't college debating. You can lose by winning in this game.
That said, I think, overall, Kerry did pretty well. I find his prattling on about how he's going to bring our allies in to save the day transparently fictitious--as he said himself, in Iraq if you break it, you buy it. Well, we broke it, and now we're going to have to clean up the mess ourselves. But I can't imagine why Kerry repeats this over and over again if it's only because he's caught a case of diplomania--he must have found that this polls well. I thought he did well by pushing Bush on Tora Bora--the right place to be in re. Bush and Afghanistan is on his right. But I think he mixed this all up by going back to diplomania in regards to Iraq. In the next debate, which will inevitably be a little less structured, if I were coaching Kerry I'd tell him to hit Bush over and over again about not fighting the war to win--say that Tora Bora isn't the exception, it's the rule--it was followed by going in light to Iraq, not sealing the borders, having insufficient troops to police major cities after the US won on the battlefront, letting enemies of the US take effective control of large parts of Iraq, etc. Say, "As a military man, I know that you should always be hesitant to commit to military action. But once you do, you go all out. You don't tie one hand behind your back, you don't take a knife to a gunfight, etc. President Bush has been too willing to commit to military action, but then insufficiently fierce once he's put men in the field." Or something like that.
Kerry's biggest failing is his problem settling on one overarching rhetorical wrapper for the whole package. He's creeping up to it, but he's got only two more shots at Bush, only two more opportunities to assuage the doubts of an American public that is troubled by the direction Bush has taken the country, but has not been given sufficient reason to trust Kerry. Kerry's problem is that he's boxed in by his previous rhetoric--given the Bush people's emphasis n his flip-flopping, he needs to come up with a general wrapper for his rhetoric that is powerful, direct, and yet consistent with his previous rhetoric. Any ideas?