Thursday, September 30, 2004

Kerry's Steadfastness Wins Debate

USA TODAY - John Kerry has a reputation, invoked so often that it invites parody, of being a strong closer in his political campaigns. But in Thursday night's first presidential faceoff, Kerry also came across as a strong opener.

With both Kerry and George W. Bush fenced in by the rigid debate format, the Democratic challenger took the early offensive in a showdown that quickly became the Florida fisticuffs. Quickly invoking Osama bin Laden, Kerry described the war against Saddam Hussein as a diversion from the struggle against terrorism. "This president," Kerry declared, "has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in a president."

Bush initially watched Kerry with his lips pursed, seemingly annoyed by the onslaught. A president, any president, normally receives automatic deference from his questioners whether they are reporters or ordinary citizens. For Bush, the confrontation with Kerry represented the first time as president that he had been directly challenged in a format that made his rival a political equal...

Both candidates were quick to react to the missteps of their rivals. When Kerry resurrected a refrain from his convention speech ("help is on the way"), Bush pounced: "Help is on the way. But it's certainly hard to tell when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops." The president, fusing the Sept. 11 attacks with the war against Saddam Hussein, said he never dreamed of sending troops into combat until "the enemy attacked us." That gave Kerry an opening to remind voters, "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us." Finally, an exasperated Bush responded, "First of all, I know Osama bin Laden attacked us." . . .

Rather than measuring the candidates on personal characteristics such as likability, the more relevant question is whether Kerry came across as Bush's equal as a would-be commander in chief. While there were moments when Kerry in his aggressiveness seemed transported back to his former career as a local prosecutor, he managed to achieve the steadiness and consistency that had eluded Al Gore in his 2000 debates with Bush. Kerry's no-nonsense approach may not have won him Mr. Congeniality honors, but it reflected his personality as a serious man striving to take possession of the Oval Office at a sobering moment in the nation's history.

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