Tim Russert is NBC News' Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  Each week he offers MSNBC.com's readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.  This week's offering looks at the first presidential debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry.

MSNBC: Tim, presidential debate number one is over. How did President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry do?

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Tim Russert: Both men secured their base. George Bush with the Republicans, John Kerry with the Democrats. And now those swing independent voters have to decide. Do they want the hard work steady leadership of George Bush or do they believe it is time for a change with John Kerry trying to reach out to the more international world in order to solve the problem in Iraq? And I think both candidates came in polished and presented it in a very powerful way.

MSNBC: Did they do what they had to?

Russert: I think John Kerry, Thursday night, was the candidate that the Democrats thought they were nominating back in Iowa – someone who would be a Commander-in-Chief, a Vietnam veteran who could go toe-to-toe with George Bush and put forward an alternative view and be seen as someone who can sit in the Oval Office.

I also think that this is the kind of debate the country’s been yearning for. We heard real differences of opinion on the war in Iraq, on the war on terror on homeland security, on North Korea.

George Bush underscored that he is certain that his view on Iraq is correct. John Kerry raised legitimate questions.

Those swing independent voters have to decide.  They now have the information to make a decision.

MSNBC: How about their performances?

Russert: I think the president was more tentative and more toward the defensive then we’ve seen him in previous debates. I think he solidified his base -- which is important at this stage of the race.

I think the John Kerry the viewers saw Thursday night was , as I said before, the one the Democrats thought they had nominated back in Iowa when they set aside their allegiance to Howard Dean and others candidates they even liked more, because they thought that John Kerry was more electable and had the ability to articulate a foreign policy – an alternative view – on a stage with George Bush that would bring them victory.

MSNBC: What about swaying the undecided voters?

Russert: We have, for the first time in this campaign, engaged the debate in a real way. People know now there are serious, profound, real differences between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry on Iraq, on North Korea and on a whole variety of issues.

Those undecided swing voters have a choice: to say, “I’m embracing the president in his certitude that Iraq is the right way to go,” or “I’m embracing John Kerry in his view that he has a plan on Iraq.”

I don’t know which way they’re going to go, but, before Thursday night, I wasn’t sure we were going to have a debate on those essential issues. We now have it.

MSNBC: Both candidates agreed the biggest threat to the United States was nuclear proliferation, but it seems they have very different approaches to dealing with that problem?

Russert: John Kerry is saying is he would go one-on-one with North Korea as a way of trying to deal with a country that has eight nuclear weapons and he would accelerate trying to get control of some of the nuclear materials that now exist in the former Soviet Union.

George Bush says you need multi-lateral -– you need more than the United States and North Korea. You need China, South Korea, Japan and other countries.

Again, this is a serious difference. And, for the first time Thursday night, you saw John Kerry presenting himself in a coherent, intelligent way, in plain English. We heard George Bush pounding away, saying, “This is what I believe.”

MSNBC: How much did the quality of President Bush’s performance affect what people thought of Senator Kerry’s performance?

Russert: The USA Today/CNN/Gallup overnight poll showed Kerry won convincingly, in terms of people who were scoring the debate. But they still found Bush more likeable and a stronger leader. So, how it translates into voting in the general election is anyone’s guess.

I do think there were some warning signs for the president.

NBC News interviewed six people in Ohio and I’ve seen numerous focus groups of undecided voters. They all believed overwhelmingly that John Kerry won the debate. Does that mean they’re now in the Kerry column, in terms of casting a ballot? Not yet. I think what he was able to do was keep the election going and start the debate. And that was essential to him.

Next Friday, I think is a very big night, because that debate is a “Town Hall meeting” of undecided voters and everyone else in the country who is undecided are going to see these people who are asking questions as their surrogates.

MSNBC: How long before we have some substantive polling on what the public thinks.

Russert: I think we’ll see polls as early as Sunday morning, just in terms of the horse race. And the key to the horse race is, every time the horse race nationally closes, then you see the battleground states tip.

So, keep you eye on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa – three states that Al Gore won in 2000, John Kerry must win there or he doesn’t have a prayer of being president. If he can flip those back into his column, then he can focus on Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then, whoever wins two of those three - Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – will be the next president.

MSNBC: The debate rules called for no cutaway shots of one candidate while the other candidate was speaking, yet all the networks ignored that rule.  Was that a factor?

Russert: I think the camera cutaways were very revealing. Obviously, the president was peaked many times about some of the things Senator Kerry was saying. I’m not sure it’s a sleeper issue, but I would think it’s going to emerge as a bigger issue in the campaign –  fortitude.

Senator Kerry began to address it last night. I think it’s both George Bush’s greatest strength and perhaps his greatest weakness. People see him as a steady leader, but when does that steadiness cross the line into bullheadedness -- when someone is so certain that it’s their way or no way?

I think that it’s going to be a real issue with undecided voters. They have to decide if George Bush is steady and resolute or that he’s so committed to his own certitude that it’s now getting in the way of reality. It’s a huge issue.

MSNBC: Wasn’t President Bush aware his expressions would be scrutinized.

Russert: He did know that. Dan Bartlett, the White House communication director, warned him as they were going out, “make sure you understand, the camera is always on you.

Clearly Senator Kerry knew it, because every time President Bush was speaking, he put his head down and was scribbling notes. I want to see what he was really doing. I want to see what he was actually writing. Was he doodling? What was going on there?

MSNBC: So, if, as some say, President Bush did not do as well as he could have in the first debate, can he make a comeback in his next debate, Friday night?

Russert: Senator Kerry, leading up to Thursday night, was roundly ridiculed by his fellow Democrats for running a lackluster campaign, for mangling any rationale or explanation for his candidacy. And now, suddenly, after one debate performance, it’s the second coming.

Remember Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale back in 1984? After their first debate, there were huge concerns about the incumbent, Ronald Reagan. In the second debate, he unloaded that line on Walter Mondale about not allowing youth and inexperience to become and issue and he went on to win a huge landslide.

We talked a year ago about this. When incumbents are running for re-election, since Woodrow Wilson, it’s been one simple fact – they either win or lose big. And I think that’s what we’re watching right now -- either President Bush will win big or lose big; and we don’t have a clue which way it’s going.

MSNBC: Is it safe to assume we'll hear more about the presidential contest Sunday, on Meet the Press?

Russert: We’ll continue, of course, to have the latest on the race for the White House, plus we’ll have the second in our Senate Debate Series: the Oklahoma race between the Democrats’ Rep. Brad Carson and the Republicans’ former Rep. Tom Coburn.

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