Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  Each week he’ll offer MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC: Tim, did it seem to you Friday night’s town hall format provided quite a different debate than the previous two debates?

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TimRussert: Hats off to these questioners. They framed this election in this debate better than I’ve ever seen before. The list of questions they laid out could not have more clearly defined the differences between these candidates.

President George W. Bush will be seen by Republicans as more energetic, more focused and more direct than the previous debate. In fact, he flew off the chair several times without being recognized. Almost like a jack-in-the-box.

Senator John Kerry was also energetic and forceful — playing to his base. The question on the differences on Iraq, the differences on tax cuts, the differences on stem cell and the differences on the environment — on the side of which voters do they come down? Voters couldn’t have a clearer choice tonight. This debate was very, very important for everyone.

MSNBC: Wasn’t it interesting see the voters who really want to make these candidates answer their greatest concerns, and answer them in a way that everyone can understand it? There were no trick questions.

Russert: I loved the questions. They were right to the point. They came from the heart. And you could hear people all around the country saying, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to ask,” and see them nodding their heads. And the candidates didn’t try to morph their answers or their differences. “This is where I stand on taxes … where I stand on Iraq ... I stand on stem cell research.”

The country now has to make a decision.

MSNBC: Did the candidates perform well enough for undecideds to make up their minds?

Russert: How do the undecided voters make up their mind? What is in their mind? Are they more disposed to be against the war in Iraq, do they play into the populist rhetoric of John Kerry and are they undecided because they just don’t like George Bush at this stage of the race?

We don’t know, but we will know a whole lot more over the next five days.

My guess is next Wednesday night’s debate will be widely viewed. People are into the campaign, and so are the candidates.

I’m also very curious to determine if, in 2004, the labels work. Can you call someone a liberal? Is that a pejorative term that will cause people who are undecided to vote against them? Or if you say someone is naive or dangerous, does that stick? Or if you say someone is not telling the truth or lying, does that stick? I just don’t know, and I’d love to find out. I guess I’ll know a whole lot more in 23 days.

MSNBC: It seemed the questioners were pretty sophisticated. They kept up with events and knew the nuances. But they integrated little of the events of the last several days — there weren’t a lot of questions about the jobless or the absence of WMD or complaints there weren’t enough troops. It seemed the questions were bigger than those events.

Russert: These people really have an understanding of what’s at stake. And they wanted to find out specifics from these candidates.

They haven’t made a decision yet, and they’re going to watch this play out and hear another debate, see what’s going on in the ground in Iraq and figure out how they are going to vote.

They are taking the measure of these men, and they are taking their time, because they want to get it right.

MSNBC: Do you expect that the pledge that John Kerry was forced to make on television, before maybe 50 million people, that he wouldn’t raise taxes in the course of a one- or two-term presidency on people who make less than $200,000 a year — will he get an unfortunate headline out of that?

Russert: I never thought I would see another, “Read my lips, no new taxes” — ever in my lifetime.

You know, in the rules for the debate, it specifically says a candidate cannot make a pledge and challenge another to meet it. Well, a questioner raised the question, so they didn’t break the rule.

But John Kerry is now firmly committed to never raising taxes on anyone who makes less than $200,000, period.

MSNBC: Any final thoughts about the debate?

Russert: You saw what can happen if you don’t have these tight debate rules — with George Bush popping off the chair like a jack-in-the-box and John Kerry ready to go. It’s what we need desperately — have someone ask the question and let these candidates debate it. Stand back.

Lincoln-Douglas worked so well. It could work even better than Friday night. These men are capable of having a real, robust debate. Forget these dumb rules.

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