So there I was, five rows from the stage, directly behind Rudolph Giuliani, into whose neck I could have stuck a fork – except I am not that kind of guy.

And here’s what I thought:

1. Bush was a really handsome 20-something in that airman’s photo we see over and over again – but what has he ever done that could possibly, conceivably, under even the most ludicrous of circumstances have qualified him to be the most powerful man in the world?

(Or as Andrew Sullivan put it as the debate ended, “We may have just had a man-behind-the-curtain moment. We are at war – the most dangerous war we have ever been in. And this guy is in charge?”)

(Or as Bush himself reportedly put it to a long-time friend when he was first being encouraged to run for governor: ‘You know, I could run for governor but I’m basically a media creation. I’ve never done anything.’)

What’s more, he didn’t actually look so good Thursday.

2. He kept talking about ‘It’s hard work.’ ‘It’s hard work.’ ‘The work is hard.’

Is this why he’s taken so much more vacation time than any other president in living memory?

3. What exactly is there about his past that would inspire world leaders to look to him to be a leader of leaders? HE DOESN’T EVEN READ THE NEWSPAPER.

3a. How does Giuliani wiggle just one ear like that? I was riveted on the debate, but – was he wiggling his ear at me? I went home afterward and tried to wiggle one ear in front of the mirror – or even both – and only succeeded in raising and lowering my eyebrows. Stop it, Rudy — you’re freakin’ me out.

4. John Kerry has written a book about nuclear proliferation. Has George Bush ever read one? This is no knock on Bush as a man – I haven’t read a book about nuclear proliferation either. But I am not running for president.

5. We have a great candidate. Yes, ‘anybody but Bush’ – but run don’t walk to see GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY. No kidding – cancel your other plans and see it today. If you’re already for him, you will come away deeply proud of your choice. If you doubt you could ever be for him, take 90 minutes to be sure.

November 2 is a decision that will affect your family for the rest of your life. Consider this movie your ‘due diligence’ . . . just on the off-chance the Bush machine has not been entirely square with you in its ridicule of their opponent.

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The last thing you need is another analysis of what a good night Thursday was. But here it is anyway.

1. The debate was watched by some 62.4 million people – a third more than watched in 2000. Turnout November 2 is going to phenomenal. Not among discouraged Republicans (would you rush out to vote for Bush if you were a moderate Republican? or a budget-balancing, conservation-minded conservative?) But among Democrats and Independents – and Republicans like Ron Reagan and John Eisenhower, who are voting for Kerry – turn-out will be tremendous.

2. The debate gave Democrats and Independents who like us on health care and education, jobs and stem cell research, but feared John Kerry might not be tough enough to keep us safe, ‘permission’ to vote our way. They saw a forceful, thoughtful leader who will make sound, informed decisions and command the respect of the world.

The debate gave moderate Republicans and ‘true’ conservatives much the same permission. Here is John Eisenhower endorsing Kerry before the debate, excerpted in small part:

As son of a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, it is automatically expected by many that I am a Republican. For 50 years, through the election of 2000, I was. With the current administration’s decision to invade Iraq unilaterally, however, I changed my voter registration to independent, and barring some utterly unforeseen development, I intend to vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry. The fact is that today’s ‘Republican’ Party is one with which I am totally unfamiliar.

One can only imagine that his comfort level with John Kerry was even higher after Thursday night.

And here is a conservative named William Bryk who won’t be voting for Bush, either. He concludes his piece:

For an American conservative, better one lost election than the continued empowerment of cynical men who abuse conservatism through an exercise of power unrestrained by principle. . . . George W. Bush is no conservative, no friend of limited, constitutional government – and no friend of freedom. The Republic would be better served by his defeat in November.

3. The next three debates will just build on Thursday’s success. How will Bush/Cheney defend spending the social security surplus they pledged to save? Allowing the assault weapons ban to lapse? Fighting to shut down stem cell research? Keeping the secret energy meetings secret?

4. I’m sure you’ve seen the Newsweek poll that shows us up 49-46 over Bush . . . leading with both men and women . . . winning the debate, 74-19 . . . more confident, 62-26 . . . more likable, 47-41. It’s so much more fun when we’re ahead.

But I tell you candidly, had the debate not gone so well, I would still have argued that we will win – because I believe it. NOTHING would get me to stay home this year, let alone vote for President Bush. And while I am far from typical (I eat four-year-old EggBeaters), I think an awful lot of people – including many that the pollsters don’t reach or don’t consider likely to vote – feel exactly the same way. There is just an unprecedented will to return our country to a better path. Whatever the polls say, add 5 points for us.

Still, it helps tremendously that the Senator did so well.

The famous end game is kicking in.

  • INSITE Media Research gave its audience dials to twist while they watched the debate.  Beforehand, the group was split 36-36, with 28% undecided.  After the debate, they were 45-41 for Kerry.  On the question of who won the debate, 50% said Kerry, 27% Bush.
  • And the e-mails!  Like this one Friday morning, from Chris Gaunt:

My good friend Sarah is a life-long, Clinton-hating, worked-on-the-Hill-for-their-team, devout Bush-respecting Republican.  She has never voted for a Democrat in her life.  Sarah called me 45 minutes into the debate and said she’s voting for Kerry.  We’re gonna win.

5. We are going to win Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia, officials had processed 164,641 forms as of Sept. 21 – 128,184 Democratic registrations and 14,509 Republican registrations).

6. We are going to win Florida (don’t hold me to this, because I haven’t checked it, but I was told by someone who should know that we have 8,000 lawyers signed up to volunteer at the polls . . . IN FLORIDA ALONE).

Writes the estimable Carole Shields, a veteran of many political battles and a Floridian:

I’ve been a part of a couple of events over the last week that were celebrations of people who have been working voter registration for months and  who are about to convert to GOTV [Get Out the Vote] activities.  It would make your heart so warm and give you even more hope.  I wish you could see all these people and these activities.  There are whole new armies of new citizens and Hispanics and African-Americans who haven’t been involved before, plus disenfranchised people from 2000, all of whom have so much energy and commitment.  A LOT of money has been put behind these efforts and there will be enormous return in people going to the polls starting on the first day of early voting.  I’d give anything if you could see these people working.  I know you can’t, but trust me that there is the best of democracy going on out there with the regular people of America while you’re locked up with the rich guys.

#

There will be bumps.  (Can you believe they are waiting until the last three weeks of the campaign to bring out Bin Laden? Or, if not, that after all this loss of life and hundreds of billions of our dollars they haven’t got him?)

And it’s astonishing to me it should be this hard.

But we are going to win.

The resources that many of you have provided . . . and will still provide, because we’re not yet fully funded . . . are a big part of the reason why. That, and our having a candidate to whom the world will look willingly for leadership.

Don’t forget to quit work early today and see GOING UPRIVER.  You spend more than 90 minutes choosing a refrigerator.  This is a choice that will determine the character of your country for the next 4 years and of your Supreme Court for the next 30. Take the time to be sure.

Tomorrow:  Timber Profits and a Little Melondrama

 

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