Will the Real Richard Wolffe Please Step Forward?

“TV is about impressions.” So said Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe on CNN’s “Larry King Live” last night.

And in watching Wolffe’s post-debate pontifications, Campaign Desk got the “impression” that Wolffe believed that Kerry decisively won the debate. Maybe it had something to do with this exchange, shortly after 11 p.m.:

Larry King: So you think — you agree with the [CNN] poll [that showed Kerry won with viewers by a margin of 52 to 39]? You think Kerry won this tonight.

Richard Wolffe: Absolutely …

Or this: “John Kerry I thought took this one by points,” Wolffe said. “The president really needed to get a big victory tonight, and he fell short of that. You know, he beat himself in the previous debates, but that really wasn’t good enough. And John Kerry has looked more presidential and more personable as these debates have gone on.”

However, reading Wolffe’s Newsweek “web exclusive” column today, posted at 2:09 — barely 13 hours after his comments on CNN — one meets a different Richard Wolffe. His piece is headlined, “On the Defense: Kerry Stayed Strong; Bush got better. But there were still some stumbles and fumbles in the final presidential debate” — and gone is last night’s certainty that Kerry “took this one by points.”

Instead, Wolffe writes, “Both candidates played a defensive strategy in Tempe for fear of messing up the final debate and emerging into the final phase of the election on a downward slide.” On the one hand, Kerry “reinforced the impressions of his first two encounters — as a far more presidential and personable candidate than many voters imagined,” Wolffe wrote. On the other hand, “Bush improved his performance from the second debate, toning down his voice successfully even if he didn’t tone down his attacks on Kerry” — although, to Wolffe’s mind, it still “wasn’t enough to erase the memories of [Bush’s] poor performance in the first debate, and his overly aggressive tone in the second.”

In other words, Wolffe has no conclusion, certainly none of last night’s confidence that Kerry swept the debate. Clearly, something happened to Richard Wolffe between 11 o’clock last night and 2 o’clock this afternoon to change his mind about the debate. If only he would tell his readers what it was.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.