Neither candidate delivered a knockout punch in the Thursday night debate. Sen. John Kerry, though behind in the polls before the debate, remains within striking distance and viable for the next two debate nights and the election based largely on his superior speaking skills.
President Bush survived several verbal assaults by Kerry and refused to be offended when his challenger called him everything but a liar, a failure and an incompetent. Kerry asked voters to believe in his nonspecific plan for victory in Iraq, which includes marshalling allies (many of whom have already indicated they won't be marshaled by the United States) and, incredibly, talking to North Korean dictator -- and certified lunatic -- Kim Jong Il to persuade him not to make more nuclear weapons. Would a President Kerry trust anything Kim says or signs?
Kerry made a lot of promises about fighting terrorism and improving homeland security, but details were lacking in credibility and possibilities. He wanted credit for agreeing with the president that Saddam Hussein was evil and had to go, but he wanted even more credit for preferring that he be dispatched in a different way.
Kerry also suggested that the way the president ousted Saddam has caused us to be hated more than we already were throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Kerry suggested the invasion of Iraq escalated this hatred. He should get out his calendar and recall that 9-11 happened before, not after, the Iraqi invasion, and that terrorist acts (not to mention sermons of hate) extend back more than 20 years.
Another weak moment came when Kerry promised to shut Iraq's borders and thereby reduce the number of insurgents. That would be a good trick, since we can't even shut our own borders to illegal immigrants. Why weren't there any questions about the infiltration by immigration currently taking place in this country?
Kerry talked about a plan for bringing the troops home and winning the war on terrorism, but he didn't say what victory would look like in Iraq. The president did: free elections, which he pledged would occur as scheduled in January; the training of Iraqi troops and police, which is ongoing; and word from the elected prime minister that Iraq can handle its own affairs.
President Bush has grown in office from a candidate in 2000 who had trouble naming world leaders to one who has developed personal relationships with many of them and can rattle off their names without mispronouncing them. He also strongly and effectively distanced himself from Kerry's globalist approach by reserving the right to act unilaterally "as a last resort" to protect America and its interests.
One of the president's better moments came when he forcefully asserted that "there's just no doubt in my mind" that the United States would "rue the day" if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to stay in power.
Both men repeatedly invoked themes and slogans from their campaign stump speeches, but the chief difference was that President Bush spoke from the experience of actually being president during one of this country's most challenging periods, whereas Sen. Kerry could only say what he would have done in the past and would do in the future. But what he says he would do is not much different from what President Bush is already doing. Kerry's high hurdle is to persuade voters to change horses mid-war, especially when his statements on that war, as the president repeatedly noted, have been in regular contradiction.
One of the president's better rejoinders came after Kerry ridiculed the number of allies and the small number of forces that most -- not Great Britain -- have committed in Iraq. After Kerry called for more allied help and pledged to attract them to the cause of stabilizing Iraq (but not saying how), Bush retorted, "You can't expect to build alliances when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side by side with American troops in Iraq."
The president was at his best when he mentioned time he spent with a particular war widow. Kerry was the most articulate and won on presentation and style. But on substance, experience, vision and conviction, it was President Bush's debate to lose. He didn't.
Now it's on to the town hall format, where Bush has shown he can shine. And let's hope for some better questions.