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Polls agree Kerry won debate

It’s awfully rare in this era of 50-50 politics — a clean, clear, decisive and overwhelming victory. Yet that is exactly what John Kerry earned Thursday in Miami. His strength, conviction and command of the issues connected with the more than 62 million viewers — the largest number since 1984.

For a change, the polls agree with one another. They all revealed the breadth and depth of Kerry’s win. Gallup respondents called it for Kerry, 53 percent to 37 percent. Kerry won swing independents by more than 2-to-1. It was the largest number picking a winner in a first debate in 20 years.

In the Los Angeles Times poll, 54 percent selected Kerry as the winner, with 15 percent opting for Bush. Newsweek said it was 61 percent to 19 percent. According to CBS, Kerry won 43 percent to 28 percent. ABC gave Kerry the win, 45 percent to 36 percent, with a 20-point victory among independents. Both women and men, and younger and older voters, called Kerry the winner.

Kerry’s victory was deeper, however. His image improved among debate watchers. More than half in the CBS poll said their opinion of him changed for the better. Kerry was better-liked personally than Bush (56 percent Bush, 61 percent Kerry). Sixty-one percent said they trusted Kerry to protect us from attack — a 15-point jump.

More than half said Kerry had a clear plan for dealing with Iraq — 13 points higher than for Bush.

Newsweek’s poll showed Kerry’s favorables increasing by a net of eight points. Bush’s rating actually declined by a net of five points. Kerry was also viewed as the stronger leader, the more likeable person and the most confident.

In Gallup’s post-debate survey, 46 percent said they became more favorable toward Kerry, with just 13 percent saying less favorable. That is the biggest margin Gallup has recorded for a debate in a dozen years. For Bush, the two numbers were close to equal. Twenty-one percent reported that their opinion of Bush had improved, while 17 percent said it had become less favorable.

Voters said Kerry showed stronger character than Bush, according to the Los Angeles Times, which also reported twice as many voters saying Kerry was more effective in getting his message across. By a 38-point margin, voters said Kerry responded better under pressure than did Bush.

The Democracy Corps/Knowledge Networks survey revealed an 11-point net shift in the number who said Kerry cared about people like them; a 17-point shift on strong leadership; a 22-point gain on Iraq.

Perhaps most important, Kerry’s victory margin has increased since the debate. In 2000, those who were interviewed just after the first debate were slightly more likely to give Gore the win. Within a few days, the interpretation had changed dramatically. Bush was the clear winner.

This time Kerry has not only maintained but actually expanded his margin of debate victory. Gallup found Kerry’s margin increasing from 16 points to 31 points a few days later. ABC said Kerry’s margin widened from nine points to 29 points in just three days.

Half as many people watched the debate as saw the convention speeches. When voters actually see Kerry in an unfiltered forum, they respond to him in a strong, positive way. Kerry’s strength, conviction and ability were on clear display Thursday night.

Winning a debate and winning an election are two different things. But Kerry watchers know he is a strong closer. With his compelling debate performance, the momentum has shifted decisively in Kerry’s favor.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.