Now that was one of the best debates I've ever seen. I liked the format much better than that of the first debate; the questions were far superior, and it was much more confrontational. The only question that felt particularly unfair was the last one to President Bush in which a lady asked him to name three mistakes he had made over the past four years. It was a fine question, but when Senator Kerry answered it he should have offered up some mistakes that he -- the Senator -- had made over the past four years, not simply taken the opportunity to attack Bush again.
First off, the President had a much better performance than he did in the first debate, there can be no question about that. He was more confident, more passionate, more collected, more clear, and more on the offense. There must have been a calculated decision to avoid mentioning France's and Germany's announcements that they would not help in Iraq no matter who is elected president, but aside from that omission I think Bush did very well. He also could have mentioned that Saddam was bribing members of the security council to oppose America, but again, there must have been a conscious decision to avoid that for fear of alienating our precious "allies".
Senator Kerry did very well also. There were a couple of instances in which he avoided answering or veered off on a tangent -- such as the question about the environment and the one about Iranian nukes -- but he hasn't had any trouble being concise, which many people expected. Obviously I don't agree with many of his positions, but his attacks on Bush's lack of fiscal discipline were well-placed... if only there were any hope that Kerry would do better. He spoke tough about the war on terror, but he focused on Bin Laden too heavily; I think most Americans realize that OBL and al Qaeda are just one aspect of the greater war. He also twisted like a pretzel to avoid the abortion-funding question, but in the end I think his position was pretty clear, as was the President's.
Although neither candidate really means it, I was amazed to hear them fighting over who would be tighter with my money. I'm not a fan of child tax credits (people with children use more government services, not less) but that a Democrat is offering to cut taxes on anyone is astounding, and a clear sign that old-style socialism is dead, in word anyway. Of course, Kerry's federal health care program plan gives lie to the hope, but then Bush is hardly better on that score what with the recent prescription drug zepplin. Bush claimed that aside from Homeland Security and the War on Terror, discretionary spending grew at only 1% per year -- is that right? I think he may be fudging the numbers somehow, but I'm sure some other blogger will dig into it.
Overall, I think America has two clear choices. In the past people (generally on the fringes) have claimed that the Democrats and Republicans are nearly identical, but in 2004 I think the candidates have laid out starkly contrasting visions for America. The decision we make as a nation will send profound reverberations ringing through history.
Check out Hugh Hewitt's scorecard for more detailed information on all the questions.