This article from CNNfyi (circa October 2000) provides some great perspective on the punditry's view of who wins debates. I find it interesting that the media still believes it can say who won the debate within five minutes of it's end. In fact, it is important for us to remember that a debate really has four dimensions to it. Each dimension is distinct and can be "won" independently of the others. The four as I label them are: Style, Technique, Substance, and Public Perception. To frame my view of these debates it is necessary to first explain these four criteria.
First is style. The style category constitutes how the debater handles himself within the discourse. It can include his posture, his facial expressions, his tone of voice, his attitude, and generally anything else that makes up the non-verbal element of the debate. Technique is the element of a debater's performance that consists of his rhetorical devises, his reactions to his opponent, and the positioning his uses in framing his argument. The third category is substance. Substance is one the most important, in fact it goes hand in hand with the last category. For now, however, let us treat it separately. Substance is the actual content of what the debater has the say. This is the lasting element of his performance. It also is what will be dissected and analyzed and used to try and win over undecided voters. The last category of the debate is unique to the world politics and is the most important one: public perception. Along with substance, the way that voters perceive a candidate is perhaps that most lasting impact of a debate. With these categories in mind, one can apply them and analyze last night's debate.
On style, John Kerry won hands down. I am a big Bush supporter but Kerry handled himself well, and he was calm and collected. Bush leaned too much and didn't take the same care in his facial expressions as Kerry did. With that said, style is the most fleeting of the categories. It doesn't last and it's impressions don't last. That is why you will see a lot of Dems trying to keep the "images" of the candidates in the public's mind. As far as Technique goes, both candidates did well. They made their points and responded to remarks of the other. Bush did surprisingly well, I thought, compared to his 2000 performances. In substance there exists no contests: BUSH WON! This is also why the DNC will focus on his expressions. They cannot compete and attack him on what he said. This is the area in which Bush most impressed me. For a man who was painted as an "idiot" in 2000 he came out swinging and did a great job. Finally, public perception is harder to call. It takes time to judge this category but I feel it will be somewhat neutral depending on how well the RNC and the Bush campaign capitalize on Kerry's verbal mistakes. Overall, I agree with those who say it was a tie and that (no matter what anyone says) is a boon to Bush. John Kerry had to come out and convince the American that he is not a waffler but a strong leader. He did not do that and even if Bush sounded repetitive he drove home the fact that Kerry's beliefs are driven by the wind of political polling.
Update: A more detailed analysis of some of Kerry's remarks will be posted later.