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Iraq weighs down debate

By Justin Boron

In one of the most anticipated presidential debates ever, Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush traded heavy blows on the nation's presence in Iraq.

Bush claimed to have protected the country. Kerry criticized him for making a "colossal error of judgment."

The topic enveloped the debate, repeatedly surfacing as a subject used for both ammunition and defense.

But some local political analysts say the bout over Iraq wasn't enough to push voters decidedly to one side.

"I don't think this will change people's minds," said Hugh Arnold, a political science professor at Clayton College & State University. "They basically reiterated their previously stated positions.

"Nobody made any colossal blunders," he said.

Arnold said he expected most judgments of the debate would fall according to party lines.

Melissa Carter, the president of the College Republicans at CCSU, said she favored Bush's straightforward approach to questions, despite the candidates' shared success with the questions.

"I think both candidates answered the questions as well as they could," she said.

But Carter said Kerry meandered through questions, often filling his answers with impertinent information.

"Bush hit most of the questions dead-on," she said.

Sean Walker, president for the College Democrats at CCSU, also assembled his criticism in agreement with his party.

"It's very surprising because Bush is known as a good debater but he's been on the defensive all night," he said. "He especially seemed to backpedal when Kerry brought up the postwar plan."

The fervor leading up to the debate heightened public interest in the event, prompting local bar and restaurant owners to deviate from the sports programs that they said usually play on a Thursday night.

Chad Hendrix of Buffalo's Cafe traded college football for the debate, saying he thought it would be more interesting.

Careful not to offend his customers by vocalizing his political leanings, Hendrix pointed to a Hunt's ketchup bottle at the end of the bar, which he said was a subtle indication of his opposition to Kerry and his wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry.

While he watched the event, Hendrix questioned Kerry's idealistic attitude toward improving the situation in Iraq.

"Judging from this debate, I think Kerry is making far too many unrealistic promises," he said.

While the initial impact of the debate may have been small, what remains to be seen is the fallout from spin that experts say will pervade the media in the coming days, said Joseph Trachtenberg, a professor of political science at CCSU.

"So much is determined on how the media and candidates spin what has happened," he said.

Trachtenberg said the tightened rules for the debate would lead to more spin because candidates didn't have a chance to question each other directly.

"There will be even more because there was less give-and-take dialogue," Trachtenberg said.

The media will play an integral role in directing the spin, said Douglas Barthlow, a lecturer at Georgia State University.

Barthlow studies news coverage of political candidates at Georgia State University and claims that there is a gap in public interest and what the media tend to emphasize.

"The media have been criticized because they focus on the horse race aspect," he said. "A lot of voters are not interested in the winner or loser, it's what was said that interests them."

Trachtenberg said voters should focus more on the issues than the debate to educate themselves on the election.

He suggested checking each candidate's Web Site: www.johnkerrry.com and www.georgewbush.com.