Round 1 to Kerry

October 04, 2004|By Jules Witcover

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Going into Thursday night's first debate with President Bush, Sen. John Kerry's prime challenge was to deal with voters' reservations about whether he has the leadership qualities to lead the nation.

With unwitting help from a largely defensive incumbent, Mr. Kerry at a minimum presented himself as a forceful, confident and informed adversary. Put another way, he bought himself a ticket into the next debate Friday in St. Louis.

Conventional wisdom going into the first debate held that Mr. Kerry was on the ropes from Mr. Bush's incessant pounding as a flip-flopper. The president seemed to buy into that view, reminding viewers relentlessly and repeatedly of what he called Mr. Kerry's "mixed messages" on Iraq compared with his own steadfastness.

But by the end of 90 minutes, Mr. Bush may have come off as a Johnny one-note while Mr. Kerry, with a disciplined attack on the president's conduct of the war as "a colossal error of judgment," seemed to knock him off stride at times.

While neither candidate broke new ground in their running exchanges over the war, Mr. Kerry did manage to convey his basic Iraq position -- that he supported the war, but not the way Mr. Bush got into it and has pursued it. Mr. Bush was left to reiterate the flip-flop charge, without using that expression.

In a sly twist, it was Mr. Kerry who alluded to it by noting that the president had to be "pushed" by key advisers to go to the United Nations for authority to use force in Iraq.

"The president finally changed his mind," Mr. Kerry said. "His campaign has a word for that."

The Bush debate plan clearly was to paint Mr. Kerry as a confused, indecisive candidate on the ropes, struggling to stay in the fight. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, said after the debate: "I thought Kerry was trying to resolve his contradictions, and he didn't."

But most post-debate polls favored Mr. Kerry.

The president, while repeatedly touting his own resoluteness on pursuing the war to victory, spent much of his time reminding viewers of familiar Kerryisms, such as his observation that he had voted for Mr. Bush's $87 billion for Afghan and Iraqi reconstruction "before I voted against it."

Mr. Kerry replied that "when I talked about the $87 million, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

He used the same exchange to argue that it's better to recognize a mistake and change it than to stay on the wrong course. Mr. Kerry tied his rejoinder to his criticism of the Vietnam War three decades ago, which the Bush campaign also has tried to use against him.

"I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right," Mr. Kerry said. "That's what I learned in Vietnam. When I came back from that war, I saw that it was wrong. Some people don't like the fact that I stood up to say no, but I did." His vote against the $87 billion, which he has defended as a protest of Mr. Bush's approach, was similar, he indicated.

Mr. Kerry will go into the St. Louis debate enhanced as a candidate capable of competing on a par with a president who is widely seen as decisive. Mr. Bush's strategists are likely to spend the next week rethinking whether the mere repetition of their plan to diminish Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper is enough to carry the day against the Massachusetts senator.

One debate has not turned the election around. Mr. Kerry is still fighting an uphill battle in most of the battleground swing states that will decide the outcome Nov. 2. But the intangible chemistry of the campaign has been altered. Mr. Kerry has put a dent into the Bush-fostered rap that he is not up to the pressures of the presidency, especially in wartime.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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