updated 10/1/2004 5:54:26 PM ET 2004-10-01T21:54:26

Guests: Melinda Hennenberger, Craig Crawford, Howard Fineman, Tony Blankley, Mike Barnicle, Ben Ginsberg

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  We are live at the University of Miami, where George W. Bush and John Kerry squared off in a 90-minute battle that may well determine who will lead this country in the war on terror over the next four years. 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC HOST:  Now let the next debate begin over who won tonight‘s debate and whether John Kerry‘s attacks against the president moved any voters into his camp. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Nice beginning. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Was President Bush able to solidify John Kerry‘s image as a flip flop?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The point I want you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it‘s the wrong war, at the wrong time, at the right place. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  We now have an all-star panel with us tonight to help score the debate.  I‘m Joe Scarborough. 

REAGAN:   And I‘m Ron Reagan. 

Loosen up the tie and pull up a chair, if you‘re foolish enough to be wearing a tie at this hour of night. 

                SCARBOROUGH:   Yes, of course.

                REAGAN:   The party is just getting started here at AFTER HOURS.

And let‘s get started.  Let‘s get straight to our panel, our distinguished panel, I should say: “Newsweek” contributing editor, Melinda Hennenberger; MSNBC political analyst and columnist for the “Congressional Quarterly,” Craig Crawford; “Newsweek” chief political correspondent, Howard Fineman; Tony Blankley is not here with us, yet; and finally, Mike Barnicle. 

Well, they‘ll be here later. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, actually, you know what? I think they are live from remote. 

REAGAN:   OK.  Mike Barnicle from “The Boston Herald.”

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Why don‘t we start here, though, with a guy that survived the spin room.  You were over there, Howard Fineman.  Obviously, you‘ve covered a lot of these things. 

I‘ll tell you, it was a—I thought it was a fascinating debate, tonight.  As I was watching it, I felt the first 20, 30 minutes, both candidates were on top of their game. 

But something happened to George Bush.  He—to me, at least, he seemed to lose his way.  What about you?  What was your take?

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK”:  Yes, I agree with that.  I think he had about 35 minutes of material for a 90-minute debate.  And kept saying—had to do the same stuff over again. 

And it‘s one thing to say, I really, strongly believe this, which is convincing but maybe not enough for 90 minutes. 

I have done so many of these now that when I go to the spin room immediately after the debate, the first thing I look to do is not listen to what the spinners are saying, but take a look at the looks on their faces. 

The—I happened to be right with the Bush spinners when they came into the room, Ed Gillespie from the RNC, Ken Melman.  They all looked a little grim. 

And it jusn‘t—wasn‘t—just because they were facing what they knew was a hostile media because they knew they had a tough sell.  The Kerry people literally hopped, skipped and jumped into the room.

And on style points, it‘s clear on style points—we can get to the substance later.  On style points, Kerry did very well.  He made himself look presidential. 

And for reporters writing on deadline, it‘s easy to make a style call.  The substance call is harder.  You have to read the transcript and so forth. 

SCARBOROUGH:   You know what?

FINEMAN:  That gave Kerry an edge earlier. 

SCARBOROUGH:   I agree with you.  We were sitting here, and we were watching Ralph Reid.  Ralph Reid, one of the smoothest, one of the glibbest spinners in the business. 

But, Craig Crawford, we saw him.  There was a smile on his face, but there was no sunshine in his soul. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  He was not a happy camper.  Tell me, what were your impressions tonight?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, COLUMNIST, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Well, Howard‘s lesson for future spinners, hop, skip and jump into the spin room no matter what you think. 

You know, I was hoping for some more fireworks, to tell you the truth, a few more one-liners, something more memorable from both candidates.  If this was the Superbowl, we could have used a wardrobe malfunction, I think, to stir things up. 

But on balance, I think Kerry got what he needed to do done.  He energized Democrats again. 

I got on the horn to a lot of Democrats because I was curious, many of them who had lost faith in this candidate.  And they‘re awake again.  Literally, I talked to one who said, I can‘t sleep now, I‘m so excited. 

REAGAN:  Melinda, we thought that the, as Howard was saying, that the smiles on the Bush spinners were pretty thin when they came into the spin room. 

MELINDA HENNENBERGER, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, “NEWSWEEK”:  I don‘t know.  But I was really—I did find the debate surprising because I thought Kerry came across in a way I hadn‘t seen him before, you know, that just really looking presidential, standing up straight, you know. 

The current president was, you know, really did seem to run out of gas.  By the end, he was kind of slouching, repeating, you know, you‘ve got to be consistent. 

And I thought Kerry did a great job of answering the flip flop question of saying, there‘s no virtue in consistency if you‘re wrong.  So—

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t know.  When he said, certainty is not a good thing, I thought that could be in a Bush ad before long. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, the thing is...

CRAWFORD:  I thought that was a poor way to say it.  I agree with what you‘re saying, in general. 

SCARBOROUGH:  That‘s a very good point.  And I want to go back to what Howard had to say tonight because we always sort of get these flash responses.  I think on style, there‘s no doubt about it John Kerry carried the night. 

There may be some—there may be, again, where we dig through transcripts, I‘m sure there are going to be some inconsistencies.  He really didn‘t answer the war in Iraq. 

But, I mean, Howard, come on.  Tomorrow morning, middle Americans standing around the water cooler aren‘t going to be flipping through the transcripts of these things, are they?

FINEMAN:  No, they aren‘t.  And what the Bush—I think what made the Bush people look grim is they realize in John Kerry they have a guy who will ignore whatever he has said before...

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  ... to say what he needs to say to be in the position he wants to get.  I have written a million pieces about Kerry the wind surfer. 

Now, the Bush people have made an ad about that.  But Kerry has a way of tacking to get himself into a position, take advantage of circumstances. 

Just this morning, 35 children died in Iraq.  All of the speeches that George Bush wants to make about Kerry‘s inconsistencies won‘t wipe that away. 

Kerry really came off primarily as an anti-war candidate tonight.  He was Howard Dean in a military uniform.  Is that inconsistent with a lot of what he said before?  Yes, but Kerry is making the bet it will take people time to catch up. 

And the Bush campaign is going to have to buy ads to go after the stuff about global tests and everything else. 

SCARBOROUGH:   Exactly right.

CRAWFORD:  Kerry was good about not being put on the defensive.  There were many opportunities—he may have wanted to respond to the mixed messages that Bush kept talking about.  He would just kind of laugh and let it go and make his points. 

He won the cut away stuff. 

SCARBOROUGH:   The president was on the defensive all night, Craig.  You‘re exactly right. 

REAGAN:  John Kerry came out—came out very strong tonight, showing the critics that he could be tough in the war on terror. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  I believe in being strong and resolute and determined.  And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are.  But we also have to be smart, Jim. 

And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq where the 9/11 commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Did it—I was surprised that Bush didn‘t seem better prepared.  You know, Howard, you said he had, you know, 90-minutes to debate and 35 minutes of material. 

Did they really think that he was going to be able to skate by on applause lines from his political rallies?

FINEMAN:   Well, he‘s not a debate—I‘m sorry, Melinda, go ahead. 

HENNENBERGER:  Well, he traditionally sticks to the same lines, and that has worked for him in the past.  But I just think that Kerry was so much stronger in answering what Bush had to say, and I do think that, you know, he said, you can‘t wilt. 

And Kerry says, I‘ve never wilted in my life.  I thought that was really an important moment for him. 

CRAWFORD:  Well that...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... and Bush in the cutaway shots.  I thought Bush lost the cutaway shots, which the networks had to make even more than they would have if there hadn‘t been this dispute over whether they should use them or not.

FINEMAN:  They didn‘t for the first half hour, then they started doing it more and more and more. 

CRAWFORD:  Yes.  And Bush in the cut away shots, when Kerry was landing some of the toughest hits on him, the look on his face was like, you know...

SCARBOROUGH:  I found that remarkable—I really did—that George W. Bush looked as badly as he did in the cut away shots. 

REAGAN:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  But why don‘t we go to Tony Blankley right now. 

Tony, certainly everybody down here seems to think that John Kerry won the night.  What did it look like to you from Washington, D.C.?

TONY BLANKLEY, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  Well, I think it‘s probably pretty hot down there.  It‘s nice and cool up here. 

Look, I did a column this week, and I think that the mistake that a lot of folks are making in commenting is they assume that the electorate hasn‘t followed the election until this moment.  But we know that this has been an intensely followed election. 

I thought Howard Fineman had the central point of the night, which was that Kerry defined himself tonight as anti-war.  If you look at the polling of the public, all the polls show the public wants a president who is going to lead us to victory. 

I always thought—and I wrote this week—that the challenge that Kerry has is to convince the public that he is prepared to lead as vigorously to victory as Bush is.  I don‘t think he got that done. 

Now, as to the theatrical reviews, I tend to agree with you.  But as to the strategic message that needed to move, I don‘t think he accomplished that.  In fact, he went the other way. 

I think Howard is exactly right.  We now have an anti-war candidate running in an electorate, which I think is a small majority for victory. 

REAGAN:  Mike Barnicle, are you out there?  It‘s Ron. 

MIKE BARNICLE, “THE BOSTON HERALD”:  Yes, Ron.  How are you?

REAGAN:   Hey, Mike.  I‘m fine.  How are you doing?

Listen the polls also show that the people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the war in Iraq.  Do you think Kerry was able to capitalize that and move the ball forward a little bit on that subject?

BARNICLE:  Well, you know what I think he did, and Joe mentioned it when he talked about people going to work tomorrow and hanging around the water cooler and standing in line for coffee tomorrow and Saturday morning. 

I think what John Kerry did was convince people who may have their doubts about him or who may not know much about him in terms of the issues, when they saw him tonight, they saw someone who you‘d have to think—take all the politics out of it—you‘d have to think, yes, I could see that guy being president of the United States. 

And John Kerry also did something tonight that to my ear I have not heard him use the word yet.  He used it a couple of times tonight.  It‘s the word kill.  He‘ll kill the terrorists. 

He hasn‘t said that before, I don‘t think, a lot on the stump.  I haven‘t heard him say it a lot.  I have listened to him a lot.  I‘ve known him a long time. 

He used that word tonight.  The president didn‘t.  It‘s a very forceful, very powerful word.  It needs no interpretation.  People in Peoria get that. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They certainly do.  I want to ask you again.  Mike brings up a good point about him looking presidential.  I‘ve heard some people earlier this week act contentiously towards those of us who would ask that question after the debate, did they look presidential or not. 

I think it‘s an important question.  I think it‘s an important question because I think that‘s what Americans are looking at, especially from a challenger. 

I want to just go around the table here and ask.  Who looked more presidential tonight?  I‘ll answer the question first as a Republican.  I think John Kerry looked more presidential—Howard?

FINEMAN:   Well, I‘m recalling our discussion in Boston about John Kerry‘s acceptance speech, the way he rushed through it, the way the theatrics were bad.  I was pounding the table and saying, yes, but look at what was in the speech.  And you said, no, no, he missed a big opportunity.  You turned out to be right. 

Here, this is the best performance I have seen Kerry give in the presidential campaign so far.  He picked a good time to do it.  I thought he looked every inch a president. 

Now, did he say there had to be a global test for preemptive war?  Will the Republicans make an ad on that?  Yes. 

Will there be an ad on the fact that he said, help is on the way and he voted against the $87 billion?  Yes. 

There will be five Republican ads out of this speech, this event tonight, but Kerry won the event itself. 

REAGAN:  Keep your powder dry, you guys.  The party is just getting started here at AFTER HOURS.

Oh, there is a good question tonight, of course, is who won the debate.  And we‘re asking all our viewers to log on to JOE.MSNBC.com and vote in our online poll. 

Over 460,000 people have voted already.  Let‘s check in on the results. 

About 70 percent of you think John Kerry won.  About 30 percent of you viewers think President Bush won. 

We‘ll be taking your calls coming up.  The number is 888-MSNBC-USA.  We‘ll be back in just a minute live from the University of Miami, site of the first presidential debate. 

Don‘t go away. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  You‘re watching MSNBC‘s coverage of the first presidential debate.  “AFTER HOURS” live from the University of Miami, in the great state of Florida.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror and say things like, well, this is just a grand diversion. 

It‘s not a grand diversion.  This is an essential that we get it right.  And so I—the plan he talks about simply won‘t work. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  We are back.  We are back live at the University of Miami “AFTER HOURS.”  And we had our first presidential debate tonight, George W. Bush and John Kerry. 

We got us a lot of fans out here of both candidates.  Let‘s go to the crowd right now. 

First of all, let‘s go to a Bush supporter.  You say, “Miami for Bush.”  “Miami loves Bush.”  What‘s your name?

LAURA, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI STUDENT:  My name is Laura. 

SCARBOROUGH:   And you are a University of Miami student?

LAURA:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:   All right.  Who won the debate tonight?

LAURA:  Bush. 

SCARBOROUGH:   How?  Why?  Why is that?

LAURA:  That‘s all right.  You know what?  It doesn‘t matter how the debate went.  I still like what he stands for, and Bush is going to win in ‘04. 

SCARBOROUGH:  We have a John Kerry supporter.  What‘s your name?

ZACH, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI STUDENT:  Zach. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Zach, also a University of Miami student?

ZACH:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:   All right.  Who do you think won the debate tonight?

ZACH:  Kerry. 

SCARBOROUGH:   And why is that?

ZACH:  Kerry has better views.  He‘s got a better plan for our future.  He‘s looking after Americans.  He‘s going to win. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s come over here to our Sigma Alpha Epsilon friends.  What‘s your name?

SHANE, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI STUDENT:  My name is Shane. 

SCARBOROUGH:   And who are you supporting?

SHANE:  As of tonight, I was undecided.  I have to say that Kerry is a pretty good speechmaker.  So—

SCARBOROUGH:  Are you registered to vote?

SHANE:  Yes, sir.  I am. 

SCARBOROUGH:   So, did tonight‘s debate change anything for you?

SHANE:  I‘m still looking at both candidates.  We‘ll see.  I‘m going to watch each debate, you know, as it comes on.  I‘m trying to be the educated voter since seeing that seems to be lacking in my age category. 

So, as of right now, I‘m liking what Kerry had to say.  I‘m a little scared of Bush‘s approach, but we‘ll see. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Now, we—obviously, we have an MSNBC poll.  You can log onto JOE.MSNBC.com.  But I want to take a little informal poll tonight. 

How many of you tonight think that George W. Bush won the debate?

(CHEERING)

(BOOING)

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Very good. 

And how many of you tonight think that John Kerry won the debate?

(CHEERING)

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Well, I‘ll tell you—I‘ll tell you what, Ron, it proves one of two things.  One, either all the Republican supporters are asleep, went home and asleep or George W. Bush got beaten tonight by John Kerry. 

Ron, let‘s go back up to you. 

REAGAN:  All right, Joe.  Well, I thought I detected a few pro-Bush back there. 

The majority of this debate focused on foreign policy because John Kerry was asked his plan for homeland security.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  What kind of mixed message does it send when you‘ve got $500 million going over to Iraq to put police officers in the streets of Iraq and the president is cutting the cops program in America?

What kind of message does it send to be sending money to open firehouses in Iraq, but we‘re shutting firehouses, who are the first responders here in America?

The president hasn‘t put one nickel, not one nickel, into the effort to fix some of our tunnels and bridges and most exposed subway systems.  That is why they had to close down the subway in New York when the Republican convention was there.  We hadn‘t done the work that ought to be done. 

The president -- 95 percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected.  Civilians get on to aircraft, and they‘re luggage is x-rayed, but the cargo hold is not x-rayed. 

Does that make you feel safer in America? 

This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security. 

Those aren‘t my values.  I believe in protecting America first.  And long before President Bush and I get a tax cut—and that‘s who gets it—long before we do, I‘m going to invest in homeland security.  And I‘m going to make sure we‘re not cutting cops programs in America, and we‘re fully staffed in our firehouses and that we protect the nuclear and chemical plants. 

The president also, unfortunately, gave in to the chemical industry, which didn‘t want to do some of the things necessary to strengthen our chemical plant exposure. 

And there‘s an enormous undone job to protect the loose nuclear materials in the world that are able to get to terrorists.  That‘s a whole other subject, but I see we still have a little bit more time. 

Let me just quickly say, at the current pace the president will not secure the loose material in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, for 13 years.  I‘m going to do it in four years, and we‘re going to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  All right.  Now back to our panel.  Melinda Hennenberger, Craig Crawford, Howard Fineman, Tony Blankley, Mike Barnicle. 

Melinda, you took exception to the notion of John Kerry as the anti-war candidate.  Give us your thoughts on that. 

HENNENBERGER:  To me, he did not come across as an anti-war candidate, he comes across as somebody who thinks that a war in Iraq would not have been his first choice as the place to fight the war on terror and really, I thought, made clear that the war on terror is not necessarily the same thing as the war in Iraq. 

For one thing, that we could have done much more in homeland security, that we should have done much more in Afghanistan, and that there were all these other countries—when he said 35 or 40 countries who had more nuclear capability than Iraq, I was pretty stunned. 

REAGAN:  Craig, did he—did Kerry separate the war in Iraq from the war on terror effectively?

CRAWFORD:  I thought Jim Lehrer, the moderator, did that pretty effectively.  But—by the way, his questions focused so much on Iraq, and that helped Kerry a lot.  Most of the debate was really about the war in Iraq.  It was not that much general discussion about the war on terror. 

And what Kerry was able to do also was talk about that vote of his on authorizing the war, and at least make the case that in his mind he‘s been consistent, that in the beginning when he voted to authorize the war, his purpose was in giving the president the authority and that the president did it the wrong way, that he didn‘t make the right choices in going to the international community and making it a last resort. 

Now, one thing about Kerry that this whole question of flip flopping on that position is you go back and read what he said when he voted.  It really is consistent with what he‘s saying now. 

I men, what he said when he cast that vote was he wanted the president to make it a last resort, to use the international community, go to the United Nations, all the things that he is saying now.  And he has never backed away from that vote. 

There have been many times he could have and maybe should have, politically, against Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries, a lot of pressure.  He could have backed out.  He could have said, the president lied to me.  That‘s why I voted that way.  Now I‘m going to recant that vote. 

The president, just a few weeks ago, the Bush campaign tried to pressure him to say, would you still have voted the same way, thinking he might change?  He did not change.  He‘s been consistent about defending that vote. 

REAGAN:  Howard, you were inhaling there with a sort of a snare that you wanted to mention.

FINEMAN:   Often prefatory to speaking.  Not always.  Not always.

Well, Melinda is right.  He‘s not an anti-war candidate.  But tonight he was an anti-this war candidate. 

HENNENBERGER:  He was an anti-how we went into this war candidate.

FINEMAN:   Yes, but I think he—yes, but I think the enthusiasm with which he pursued that lapsed over into just against this war. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Mike Barnicle, I want to ask you to put yourself in the position of the Bush campaign, right now.  Everybody says, let‘s not jump to conclusions.  Screw the niceties.  John Kerry won this debate. 

Karl Rove tonight is on the phone right now.  He‘s talking to people, trying to figure out what to do next. 

What do you expect the Bush campaign to do first thing tomorrow morning to start responding to George Bush‘s flat performance tonight in Miami?

BARNICLE:  Well, they‘ll probably first shoot for another 32 pages of rules to govern that domestic debate. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  You know, cut the time down to a half an hour and 30-second responses. 

I‘ve got to tell you, Joe, you know, before I get into a response to your query, I was stunned as a voter, as a citizen, as a parent, that the president didn‘t talk more about how our world did change on September 11th and his role as president in that changing world. 

I always thought that, that was his strongest suit as president, his strongest suit as a candidate.  He mentioned it once.  And what he did was, in sports parlance, at least to my eye and my ear is, he had a guy, John Kerry, on that stage, who—and I think Howard might bear me out here. 

If you had heard him on the stump campaigning the past week or so, two weeks, three weeks, he is a guy who has lost a little of his confidence.  He got it back tonight.  They let him back into the game. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Isn‘t it amazing that coming into this debate we were all talking about how George W. Bush had his confidence and how John Kerry had lost his confidence.  And tonight it seemed to switch about 20, 30 minutes in to the debate. 

We‘re going to talk about that a lot more.  And also, we want to hear what you have to say.  If you agree with us, you‘ve got a way to do that tonight.  You can log onto JOE.MSNBC.com. 

By the way, we‘ve got to get a RON.MSNBC.com. 

                REAGAN:   Yes. 

                SCARBOROUGH:   Something‘s wrong about this.

                REAGAN:   Yes, something‘s unfair about this.

SCARBOROUGH:  But for tonight, log onto JOE.MSNBC.com.  Let us know what you think. 

We have over a half a million people who have already voted, and it‘s leaning heavily towards Senator Kerry.  It‘s not a scientific poll, but we‘re going to be running it all night anyway. 

You can e-mail us again here also at JOE@MSNBC.com.  Or pick up the phone and give us call us at 888-MSNBC-USA. 

We‘re going to be taking your calls when AFTER HOURS, live from the University of Miami returns right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Live from the University of Miami, this is AFTER HOURS, and we‘re talking about who won the first presidential debate.  Much more fun and analysis in just a minute.

First, a check-in with MSNBC news desk.

(NEWSBREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NBC SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Governor Bush, both you and the vice president have offered plans to provide prescription drugs for the elderly.  What makes your plan superior?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jim, I‘d like to interrupt here and answer that question as if it were my turn to speak.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RON REGAN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Well, we‘re here with Ben Ginsberg, Republican lawyer and strategist.  “Lawyer extraordinaire,” I must say. 

Now, Ben, I know you‘re here to speak for President Bush and, you know, you‘re here to spin, as they say, I suppose.

BEN GINSBERG, REPUBLICAN ELECTION ATTORNEY:  I never spin.

REAGAN:  I know you never spin.  Most people think that at least stylistically, Senator Kerry won this debate.  We don‘t have to get into the nitty gritty here but, stylistically.  What do you tell President Bush going into the next debate that he needs to do better?

GINSBERG:  Well, the truth is, you don‘t tell President Bush to do anything other than do what comes naturally and to be himself. 

The next debate is the town hall.  That‘s a different format.  They‘re standing around, they‘re walking around, they‘re interacting with an audience, so that requires a little bit of a different style and approach from being behind a podium, so I think they‘ll work on that, but he‘s going to continue to basically be himself in these.

REAGAN:  Now one thing I noticed, and maybe I‘m just a stickler for this sort of thing—if I were you I‘d—or somebody connected with the Bush campaign—I would say Mr. President, stand up straight.  Stop slumping behind the podium. 

John Kerry looked like he was standing up, you know, very presidentially, and Bush not so much.

GINSBERG:  Well, I think one of the strengths of President Bush has always been that he‘s sort of himself and natural.  He‘s presidential.  The people have seen him for four years.  He felt comfortable.  He is comfortable; he‘ll continue to be comfortable he‘s not going to have that ramrod look.  Some call it presidential, some call it stiff.

REAGAN:  I didn‘t think it was stiff at all; I think he was just standing up straight.  I didn‘t think the president—OK, we‘re coming from different places here; I‘ll admit that.  I didn‘t think he looked comfortable.

GINSBERG:  Oh, I don‘t think—I would not agree with that.  In fact, if anything, I think John Kerry was the guy who really kind of looked like he needed to take a deep breath and sort of have fun with things.

REAGAN:  OK, and everything is going peachy in Iraq too?

GINSBERG:  Ron, Ron, Ron—this is about strategy and tactics, not editorial comments.

REAGAN:  I get to do that occasionally.

GINSBERG:  I know.  It‘s a wonderful thing to have the mic.

REAGAN:  It‘s true.  Well, I‘m sharing, though. 

GINSBERG:  Yes, you‘re doing it very nicely.

REAGAN:  All right, Ben, thank you very much for dropping by.  Joe, back to you.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, thanks a lot Ron, and obviously we‘re going to be getting back to Ben later on.

Right now I want to go, though, to Tony Blankley. Tony, obviously a lot of talk tonight about how the president and John Kerry did.  I want to ask you—if you‘re talking to Karl Rove, if you have his ear tonight, what do you tell him he needs to do next?

TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  Well, I think they need to do what they‘ve been doing, which is to focus on the substantive message of fighting a war but in an age of terrorism.

That‘s the reason why people are going to come to an election and vote and the talking about whether it‘s anti-war or not, you know, for the candidate who said that the war is a catastrophe, a mistake, and a diversion doesn‘t seem to me like a guy who is leading them into victory.

Now you know when we really get into this stylistic business I don‘t think the American people have any doubt about whether the president is capable of being president because he‘s been a successful president for four years.  I agree that Kerry looked great.  You know we were joking months ago that he looked like he came out of—off—Mount Rushmore.

I think the important—I think this is serious election, I think the American public takes it seriously.  And that the president has been on the right side of the issue.  All the polls show that they—that the public believes that fighting and winning the war matters. 

And so far Kerry has not moved—in fact if anything he‘s moved backward from a commitment to fight and win and so I would advise Karl to continue to do exactly what they‘ve been doing.  I think its been very successful and I would remind the audience that most of the public has seen—has been following the election and has noticed that Kerry is saying something different virtually every time they see him.

SCARBOROUGH:  And of course the president tried to hammer home the point that Senator Kerry would not be a suitable Commander in Chief.  Take a quick listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  My opponent says help is on the way, but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm‘s way “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time?”  That‘s not a message a Commander in Chief gives or “this is a great diversion.” 

As well, help is on the way but it‘s certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it.  That‘s not what Commander in Chiefs does when you‘re trying to lead troops. 

JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR:  Senator Kerry, 30 seconds.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war.  But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq.  Which is worse?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Mike Barnacle?  American people going to buy that line?

MIKE BARNICLE, THE BOSTON HERALD:  Well, you know I don‘t know, Joe.  I don‘t know whether they buy that line.  I tell you what they do buy, though, is they buy the fact that George Bush has been strong president, very certain in his beliefs over the past three years, certainly since September 11th.  I think people do buy that. 

I think John Kerry tonight made a little chip in that though because there‘s a difference between certainty and stubbornness and at times the president may have appeared to be a bit stubborn this evening in the repetition of his points.

People I don‘t think want any bend, any yield in the president when it comes to fighting terror and terrorists around the world, but the stubbornness of his position was such that I think Kerry made a little dent in that tonight, and that was helpful to Kerry.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, I want to ask Howard—we were talking earlier about what Karl Rove is doing tonight.  I will say it again—everyone is saying, oh, you‘ve got to wait till tomorrow to figure out who won this debate.  Well, I‘m going to say it tonight.

John Kerry won the debate.  Karl Rove, I‘m sure tonight in Washington, D.C., the White House, because he‘s a brilliant tactician, Karl Rove knows John Kerry won this debate.  You follow these campaigns; you‘ve followed a lot of campaigns before 2004.  What‘s Karl Rove thinking tonight and what‘s he going to do tomorrow tonight to launch a counter-offensive?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Well, one amusing thing right off the bat is it sounds like the Republicans are now looking forward to this next debate in St. Louis, which they didn‘t want to have at all because its going to be with real people interacting.  But what they‘re doing right now is furiously game planning, advertising copy, and speeches they‘re going to try to dismantle the John Kerry that was erected tonight on that stage.

They‘re going to say—he said you need a global test before you use American power.  He said help is on the way that voted against the $87 billion.  He said the war was a mistake, but then in the next sentence said that soldiers are not dying for a mistake.  They‘re going to make all the counter-points that George Bush only partially made tonight. 

George Bush is not a debater.  He made that clear tonight.  His strongest suit is his sense of conviction.  But you can‘t pound the lectern for 90 minutes and make the same point over and over again.  It doesn‘t work in this kind of setting. 

So I know that they‘re deciding—I saw Ken Melman, the campaign chief of staff, basically, on the way out of the hall tonight.  I said which ad are you going to do first?  I think that global test may be first, but I can assure you they‘re going be on the air by tomorrow with a series of ads trying to answer the points that Kerry made tonight and kind of unravel the Kerry that was stitched together on the stage here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well I got to say I think Karl Rove is going to be looking to Dick Cheney to clean up next week.

FINEMAN:  But he‘s not necessarily the right guy to do it.

REAGAN:  Not a great debater, which is tough when you have to debate. 

We‘d love to hear from you.  Pick up the phone and give us a call.  The number is 888-MSNBC-USA.  Don‘t go away.  We‘ve got much more AFTER HOURS live from the University of Miami in just a minute.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I hope he‘s going to get to how he‘s going to pay for all these promises.  It‘s—like a huge tax gap.  Anyway.  That‘s for another debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  That is of course as Howard Fineman described them the MSNBC AFTER HOURS late night cheerleaders.

REAGAN:  You know George Bush was a cheerleader.

SCARBOROUGH:  Of course.  Trent Lott also. 

Anyway, you‘re watching AFTER HOURS and it‘s time to go straight to the phones and get Marcy from California.  Marcy, you‘re on AFTER HOURS.  What did you think about tonight‘s debate?

MARCY, SANTA MONICA, CA:  Well, you‘re talking about their sartorial looks and I‘m not.  I‘m going to say this to the American people.  I believe that if President Truman hadn‘t used the atomic bomb when he did, a lot of nuts would have tried to bomb us.

Now when those planes went into the towers on 9/11, President Bush stood up and said we‘ll get you the terrorists wherever you are and when he can bring a man like Saddam Hussein down and make him hide in the floor in a hole that‘s a great deterrent because it shows that he means what he says and he‘s going to get them wherever they‘re hiding.

So all of these people who are going to vote for flip-flop Kerry which you notice he didn‘t say anything about the borders when he said that about homeland security—and if you think that he‘s going to turn Korea around, or Iran around, you‘re are greatly mistaken because as soon as they sense a weak spot you‘ve had it.  And that‘s what I have to say.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know Ron I—thanks for your call.  You know it‘s very interesting, I said this earlier...

REAGAN:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  A lot of us, even those of us that support President Bush have had a tendency always to underestimate him before a debate and you know what else?  We‘ve also had the tendency to underestimate him after a debate.

REAGAN:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  And sometimes the chattering classes don‘t get it.  Sometimes people in Middle America say you know what?  He may be awkward, Linda, but he talks like people I know. 

You think we may wake up tomorrow and tomorrow afternoon start hearing sort of the returns trickling in, people around the water coolers saying you know what?  He knows what he believes in. 

He may not be an eloquent speaker but doggone it; he‘s going to bring these people to justice.

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, NEWSWEEK:  I think that‘s always worked great for him, but I think it has worked so well for him in the past that the expectations for Kerry tonight were really low so Kerry I thought definitely won the expectations game, especially on likeability.

I thought Kerry just came across—there wasn‘t a moment of condescension from Kerry tonight.  I thought that was really important.  And Bush seemed like to me that he didn‘t really want to be there after a certain point. 

It‘s not so much that he is—there was a lack of eloquence.  I think that speaking conversationally to people works well but his whole body language said get me out of here.

SCARBOROUGH:  Howard, you agree with that?

FINEMAN:  I agree with it up to a point, but I think we have to be careful because I think Bush‘s hedgehog-like stubbornness is appealing to a lot of people and his argument that only that kind of hedgehog-like stubbornness can carry the day with the terrorists is a serious argument, but I think one of the things we‘re saying here tonight is if Bush believes passionately about that, if the president cares passionately about that, he has to be able to unpack it a little more and bring people into his vision a little more because he‘s not just talking to his own base.

He‘s got to talk to those few, five or six or seven undecided voters who are out there.  I don‘t think he made any progress with those people tonight.  He didn‘t hurt himself with his own base but he didn‘t reach out.  Kerry accomplished more in reaching out to people tonight than I think Bush did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He didn‘t lose support tonight...

FINEMAN:  Right.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  ...  practical impact...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  To say John Kerry won the debate is not to say George Bush lost a single vote tonight because I think his partisan supporters, those who agree with him on the war like that caller, will not be dissuaded by this debate. 

I think the most important impact of tonight‘s debate is Kerry reenergized Democrats who were beginning to lose faith in him.  That, I think, is the major impact, because many Democrats around the country were beginning to say—hold their nose and say I‘ll vote for him—but I don‘t think he‘s going to win.

FINEMAN:  There were people prepared in the pressroom tonight to write dash thirty dash on this campaign, which is old newspaper lingo for end of story.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

FINEMAN:  And they were waiting to write that story and Kerry prevented that from happening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s a Web site out there called kerryhatersforkerry.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And I think a lot of those folks maybe got a little more reason to actually support Kerry tonight.

REAGAN:  Well, the Ben Ginsberg question I was asking:  how do you get Bush to be better and in the groove for the next debate and who gives him the advice?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well I like what Ginsberg—what he said when he said you don‘t tell George Bush anything and I think that‘s part of the problem.

REAGAN:  Well maybe that is but somebody has got to tell him something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a man...

SCARBOROUGH:  Say that name again?

FINEMAN:  Karen Hughes.

SCARBOROUGH:  Karen Hughes; damn right.

FINEMAN:  Especially because the next debate is going to be more conversational thing.  It‘s so ironic because that‘s now become an important thing for George Bush and it‘s interesting also to look to the vice presidential debate where Dick Cheney is now going to have to do a lot of the arguing that Bush didn‘t do tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He‘s surrounded by yes people and I think you know watching John Kerry attack him was not something he enjoyed very much.

REAGAN:  No, no, or responded to terribly well.  Let‘s take a second check in on our online poll.  We asked who do you think won the debate?  Here are the results.

Thirty percent of you thought President Bush won.  Seventy percent of you said Senator Kerry got the upper hand.  Remember it‘s a total—an unscientific poll...

(CROSSTALK)

You can vote at joe.msnbc.com—no...

SCARBOROUGH:  All right; stick around.  We‘re going to have a lot more AFTER HOURS when we return live from the University of Miami.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  Well, it‘s time to say goodnight to some of our distinguished panel.  Thanks to Mike Barnicle, Howard Fineman, Melinda Henneberger.

Everyone else stick around because we‘ve got much more in the next hour.

SCARBOROUGH:  And of course you can log on to joe.msnbc.com and vote in our unscientific online poll.  We‘re proud of that.  Who do you think won the debate? 

You can also e-mail us your thoughts about tonight‘s debate to joe@msnbc.com or give us a call.  The number is 888-MSNBC-USA.  We‘ll see you in a minute.  Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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