The questions were limp. Ever hear of the environment? John Ashcroft?
If Bush could have bottled his best ten minutes he would have defeated Kerry's worst. But it's a 90 minute event. And Kerry stumbled only once that I caught (I think the Congressional Black Caucus has been in the White House1). Bush stumbled often, looking lost. That smirk crept back. And he got caught out badly on jobs, on how students are losing their lunches. Kerry had several zingers, on jobs, minimum wage, health care. For example, the line about telling union workers that he can't stop all outsourcing is pretty obvious but it will play well.
Bush at his best was better than in the previous debates—notably in pointing up Kerry's opposition to the First Gulf War authorization; but for the middle part of the debate he looked alternately lost, scared, smirky. It was odd. The line about not trusting the press oh never mind was not just unpresidential, it was strange. Bush ducked the Roe v. Wade question, and it showed. That helps with the base, but I don't think it helps with the nation as a whole. Kerry also nailed the guns question after Bush said he ducked supporting the assault weapons ban because he didn't think it would pass—Kerry said that was a failure of leadership, and he could do what Clinton did: pass the bill with the help of law enforcement officers who support it.
In my view, Bush was better than before — but so was Kerry. He looked like a President, and I think he actually inspired, yes John Kerry inspired, when he talked about fairness. Bush will have scored points talking about faith, but I'll take works please. [It's interesting that the candidates' debate reflects the fault line in US Protestantism regarding faith vs. works, the tension that famously destroyed the hegemony of the Puritan divines in Massachusetts shortly after the American Revolution. It's also interesting to hear Catholic Bostonian Kerry giving the salvation through works line, while it's unchurched Protestant Southerner Bush, the man whose works are not working, is in essence arguing for blind faith. Sociologists of religion will be quoting this stuff for years.]
But it doesn't matter what I think, what matters is what the country thought.
[Update 10/14: Insta-polls say Kerry won big. ]
1 [Update 10/14] Well, yes and no. See the details at The Carpetbagger Report