WASHINGTON -- President Bush smirked and winked and chuckled to himself. He jumped from his stool, chopped at the air and interrupted the debate moderator. As he fought to keep his emotions in check in a testy, personal debate with Sen. John Kerry, the president asserted, ''That answer almost made me scowl.''
Several answers brought Bush's emotions to the surface, for better or worse, as he sought to curb Kerry's momentum.
The question that hung over the second of their three debates was whether Bush's aggressive, hyper style was an effective tool or a damaging habit -- an extension of his disastrous first debate performance. Reviews were mixed.
Bush ''seemed wound a bit too tight. He was a little like Nixon -- sort of jumping out of his suit,'' said David Niven, political science professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. ''He looked bad on the TV close-ups.''
''Kerry was way too wordy and Bush was folksy, feisty,'' said Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. ''Bush looked comfortable and produced a plausible story line.''
As for voters, especially those in the shrinking mushy middle yet to make up their minds, both Bush and Kerry presented an angry, negative face to national politics.
Several said they were disappointed by both men.
''They're very argumentative. I'm actually disgusted,'' said Jennifer Schmitz, 38, a mother of three in Klamath Falls, Ore. ''It's the same old back and forth meanness.''
In their 90-minute faceoff, Kerry was cooler and windier, but no less confrontational.
''He gave you a speech'' on Iraq ''and told you he'd plan carefully,'' Kerry told the crowd of uncommitted voters standing in for millions of Americans watching the debate. ''He didn't. He broke his word.''
At times, Kerry swiveled to address Bush directly, forcing camera angles that caught the president's facial reactions. Bush seemed to be aware that his reactions were being watched; as Kerry spoke, he scribbled notes or looked at the Democrat.
''He rushed to war,'' Kerry said. ''This president hasn't listened.''
Both candidates sought to address their political vulnerabilities -- for Kerry, assertions that he is a flip-flopper and, for Bush, the self-inflicted wounds from the first debate.
Kerry summed up Bush's re-election campaign strategy nicely -- ''He wants you to believe that I can't be president.'' Then he accused Bush of waffling on crime and education policies among others before turning the topic back to Iraq. ''Let me tell you this, I have never changed my mind about Iraq,'' Kerry said, glossing over his history of inconsistency on the topic.
As for Bush, voters said last week they were turned off by his repetition of a few talking points during his turns at the microphone and his peevish facial expressions during Kerry's remarks. He did so poorly-- about a third of voters formed a less favorable view of him during the debate, according to an AP-Ipsos poll -- that he had nowhere to go but up.
Bush cut down on the antics Friday night but didn't eliminate them.
Early in the debate, Kerry quoted Republican senators expressing concern about Iraq. Television cameras caught Bush laughing to himself, then smirking, and finally giving a quick wink to somebody in the crowd.
He and Kerry repeatedly jumped from their stools to respond, wandering the red-carpeted stage to make their points. Bush was the most aggressive, at one point overrunning moderator Charles Gibson's attempt to pose a question after Kerry said he was ''not going to go alone like this president did'' in Iraq.
''I've got to answer this,'' Bush said, cutting off Gibson, then indignantly responded to Kerry. ''You tell Tony Blair we're going alone.''
Often, Bush's voice rose to nearly a shout. Was is too much? That's in the eye of the beholder.
''Bush looks the most determined. He's up and down, but he's not angry. He focused on how he responds,'' said Chris Montgomery, 48, an uncommitted voter in New Orleans who leaned toward Bush before the debate.
He said Kerry kept talking about his plan for Iraq, ''but where was it?''
Craig Swatland, 40, an uncommitted voter listening to the debate on the radio in Bozeman, Mont., said Bush was ''pretty heated up, but he's just being aggressive.
''I would just like one of these guys to answer a question,'' he said. ''I'm tired of listening to the rhetoric and the carping.''
Ron Fournier has covered presidential politics since 1993.
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