One more chance for Bush to get back on offensive

October 12, 2004|By Jules Witcover

ST. LOUIS - President Bush, in his second debate with Sen. John Kerry the other night, said in reference to the war on terrorism that "the best way to defend America ... is to stay on the offense." The same could be said about defending his job in the White House.

In their first two televised confrontations, Mr. Kerry kept the president on the defensive, hammering at him on his decision to invade Iraq and on the mess that has evolved from it. The best offense Mr. Bush seemed able to muster was the old Republican tactic of hanging the "liberal" label on his opponent, with frequent charges of flip-flopping thrown in.

The president cited a magazine that named Mr. Kerry "the most liberal senator of all," adding, "And that's saying something in that bunch." With allegations of numerous votes for tax increases in Mr. Kerry's 20-year Senate record, the president said, "He can run but he can't hide" from his liberal record.

But Mr. Bush has been trying to hide from his own record. Mr. Kerry repeatedly brought back the St. Louis debate not only to the war but to other aspects of Mr. Bush's performance in the Oval Office. He can be expected to do the same tomorrow night in their third encounter, this one in Phoenix.

The second debate came at an inopportune time for the president - after U.S. arms inspector Charles A. Duelfer's exhaustive finding that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction that were Mr. Bush's stated justification for invading Iraq. The president found himself additionally on the defensive over the statement of L. Paul Bremer III, the former civilian administrator for Iraq, that insufficient U.S. forces were committed to bring about stability.

Mr. Kerry came to St. Louis armed with the sharply critical words of two respected Republican senators, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, about the dire state of affairs in Iraq and severe doubts about Mr. Bush's course of action there.

Under the St. Louis town hall format, with local voters posing the questions, many veteran debate-watchers had speculated that the more informal setup would work to the advantage of the folksy Mr. Bush and against the patrician Mr. Kerry.

But while the president was more engaged and worked diligently to throw Mr. Kerry onto the defensive, he was obliged again under Mr. Kerry's relentless, controlled aggressiveness to explain his foreign policy and economic decisions, from which he could neither run nor hide.

Mr. Bush held to a minimum the visible irritation that had triggered criticism of his performance in the first debate. Still, he seemed tense and even a bit unnerved at times in the face of another self-assured and fact-laden Kerry attack.

Mr. Bush tried every attack line, from Mr. Kerry's contradictory statements on the war to recitations of his Senate votes, and tried to get a laugh out of his own facial expressions in the first debate by saying that one Kerry answer "almost made me want to scowl." But he never succeeded in denting Mr. Kerry's focused assaults on his presidential stewardship.

At one point, when Mr. Bush defended the troop levels he sent into Iraq as having been the recommendation of his generals, Mr. Kerry shot back: "The military's job is to win the war. A president's job is to win the peace. The president did not do what was necessary."

Going into the first debate, Mr. Bush had a chance to finish off a faltering Mr. Kerry, but that impression quickly faded. Going into the second debate, Mr. Bush faced collapse if he failed to recover. That didn't happen.

So the president has one more opportunity tomorrow night to get back on the offensive, in the face of Mr. Kerry's effective strategy of making him defend an indefensible war, an unprecedented deficit, huge tax cuts for the rich and a pathetic record of job creation.

It's a tough challenge, but if Mr. Bush can convince the voters that Mr. Kerry is too inconsistent and unreliable to be president in time of war, he may yet overcome his own shortcomings as a debater.

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

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