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Who won? Depends on your party

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Based on collegiate debating standards, Sen. John Kerry won Thursday night's debate, a local debate expert says.

From a more partisan viewpoint, however, the winner was more clearly defined by viewers as whichever candidate they supported before the debate started.

Utah Republicans were pleased that President Bush continued his strong reasoning for the Iraq war and emphasized the need for continued strikes against terrorists. The Democrats backing Kerry applauded his extensive knowledge of all of the issues and his ability to communicate them to voters.

While the messages of both Bush and Kerry, D-Mass., did not stray from their oft-repeated positions, Dan Lair, University of Utah director of forensics, said the performance of the Democratic challenger was unexpected — and better.

"As a debater, Kerry was a clear, hands-down winner," Lair said. "I was really surprised."

Lair says it was a "political" and not a "collegiate" debate — for example, the level of depth wasn't as extensive as a collegiate debate — so the usual debate standards don't completely apply. But based on those standards, Kerry came out on top.

"Kerry did a much better job at outlining his position and supporting it with examples," he said.

Lair believes Bush fell into some of the common debate traps; for example, he kept reasserting that he believes Kerry is inconsistent.

"I really thought that Bush would win," Lair said. "However, Bush was not able to capitalize on his strengths. . . . I was shocked. It wasn't the outcome I expected."

Another factor that surprised Lair was Kerry's long answers and Bush's short ones. Kerry usually spoke right to the last second on his time allowed, while Bush cut his short by 10 to 15 seconds quite regularly. By the time it was over, Bush may have lost two to three minutes of possible comment.

"You can do a lot in 15 seconds," Lair said.

Bush also lost many of the topics, only winning when they discussed the North Korea nuclear issue. Kerry took all the rest, from the situation in Iraq to homeland security to pre-emptive war, the debate expert said.

"I do think Bush got a little flustered," Lair said. "Kerry seemed to be much more composed."

Despite the challenger's success, Lair said he's not convinced the American public will care who won. "It might be more about image. Bush may well go down in history as winning," Lair said.

At a debate dinner, hosted by the Utah Democratic Party in the Skybox restaurant, almost 50 party members voiced loudly their approval of Kerry's comments, scoffing continually at Bush's responses. After a month in which Republicans have hammered Kerry for inconsistent opinions, Sandy resident Aaron Neal said it was nice for Kerry to finally be able to express his ideas to the American public.

"I hope Kerry will be able to validate his positions," he said. "The Bush campaign has attacked him so relentlessly that people haven't heard his message."

University of Utah Republicans gathered around a television in the Olpin Union. Though they were much more subdued than the Democrats, they pronounced themselves pleased with Bush's debate performance.

Most importantly, said Danielle Fowles, chairwoman of the U. College Republicans, Bush emphasized that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was essential and used his personality to connect with voters.

"I wanted to hear that going into Iraq was the right thing, because we need to continue to pursue terrorists and Iraq is central to that mission," Fowles said. "Bush has done very well in addressing the issues. He's consistent, and he had Kerry on the run."

A poll conducted immediately following the debate by Survey USA for KSL-TV showed that, for the most part, Utahns remained very supportive of Bush and were pleased with his showing. Of the 434 respondents who watched the entire debate, 44 percent felt that Bush won, while 29 percent thought that Kerry won the debate. Twenty-six percent did not think there was a clear winner. Only 14 percent said they would change their vote, although 53 percent of those who will change their vote are switching to Kerry.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com