Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Race Gets Down To Its Essence
A Race Gets Down To Its Essence

By Jim Hoagland

Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page B07

And then they were put asunder.

For nine days in October the four horsemen of anger, ambition, gravity and effervescence galloped across America's television screens. Their joint appearances illuminated their individual essences more brightly than the issues that they reiterated into infinity.

The nation not only endured but profited from this well-run exercise in political jousting. From now until Election Day we will watch candidates Bush, Kerry, Cheney and Edwards in the isolation booth of stump speeches and photo ops. The swords they crossed in such an intensely personal manner in our living rooms will flail in the air at suddenly distant, jeering enemies.

Begin by acknowledging the obvious: This brief debate season rescued the candidacy of John Kerry. He passed the television test, which employs immediate and visual standards. In each of their outings, the challenger instantly appeared more presidential to the eye than did the sitting president.

But uncommitted voters -- what stubborn cusses they must be -- now will sift through the hyperbole, visions, fear-mongering and silly promises they heard in the four encounters. They face a more, well, global test in which the voters' ability to hear the voice of the candidate stating his position directly to the audience may be crucial.

Try to recall Kerry explaining the details of his greatly expanded health care program. I have trouble. I can summon up Kerry's voice -- now familiar and plausible to the nation's inner ear -- and his general message on health care from Wednesday night. But then the twang of George W. Bush decrying government-run health programs that cost trillions drowns out the senator's verbal filigree. For me, it works the other way on their argument over raising the minimum wage. This time Kerry is loud and clear, Bush blurry and faint.

The Bush strategy was intended to burn a few constantly repeated, blunt statements into the national auditory memory. This may yet serve him better in the reflective aftermath of the debates, when essence matters, than it did in the debates themselves, when image is all.

Essence is what lingers afterward: a perfume's scent on a pillow, a melody that plays on when the song ends and, in politics, the sense of an irreducible core of values emanating from a candidate. It emerges not from the rote responses on Iraq or Social Security but from the glimpses the candidates inadvertently permit into how their minds and souls work.

From Sept. 11, 2001, Bush has not masked his anger over what happened to his nation and to his presidency on that day. Only in the third debate did he mercifully leaven that anger with attempts at humor, some of which worked. Kerry in contrast has skillfully used the debates to establish and project a sense of discipline and mission around an ambition that has at times seemed relentless.

Essence is everything for the perpetually worried Dick Cheney, the only person I have ever met in Washington as painfully inept at small talk on social occasions as I am. The surprising thing about John Edwards is how little he has left behind during this campaign for further reflection, beyond the question of whether he was reined in by the Kerryites or by himself.

Kerry and Bush handled Bob Schieffer's deft questions about religion as though they had been asked to juggle a bottle of nitroglycerine -- even though religion is a huge factor in each of their life experiences. This caution helped keep religion the most submerged but potentially explosive topic of this campaign in its final days.

In their totality, the debates allowed Kerry to achieve more of his goals and needs than Bush did, despite a format and schedule negotiated by the Bush camp to favor the president. In retrospect, the Democrats' chief negotiator, Vernon Jordan, appears to have seen his candidate's strengths and weaknesses much more clearly than did the Republicans' Jim Baker. Jordan sent Kerry into the ring on the theory that if Kerry had his act together, the shape of the ring would not matter.

The GOP calculation that a third debate on domestic issues would be anticlimactic seems not to have held up. Voters have largely made up their minds on Iraq through their own assessments of how that struggle is going and of its relationship to the war on terrorism, rather than on the candidates' positions during the debates.

That has left the uncommitted looking for the personal clues -- the essences that linger. They emerged in the debate that counted, perhaps most of all, among us stubborn cusses.