Friday, October 01, 2004

Kerry's turnaround

The Boston Globe

Kerry's turnaround

October 1, 2004

FOR SIX months since the effective end of the primary season, President Bush has been portrayed as better able to control the debate by staying on message while John Kerry sends mixed messages. Last night at the first televised presidential debate, that equation was turned on its head.

Despite a game attempt by the president to depict Kerry as indecisive, it was Kerry who attacked Bush for sending mixed messages in matters of homeland security -- by cutting funds for firefighters and other first responders, by failing to protect seaports and bridges, and especially by shifting his focus from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.

Kerry even managed to turn around the president's presumed best asset: his determination and spine. "You can be certain but you can also be wrong," Kerry said succinctly.

Kerry painted a stinging picture of the American effort in Iraq. "I don't know if the president is aware of what's going on over there," he said, and ticked off a litany of horrors: the insurgencies, the beheadings, the barely contained chaos, each month bringing a higher toll than the last of Americans dead. When Kerry said, "This president isn't getting the job done," it had the unmistakable click of truth.

Meanwhile, the president's much vaunted ability to stay on message seemed more like a life raft he was grabbing as tough questioning in the 90-minute debate bore in on him and the essential thinness of his message was revealed. His repeated assurance, "We are going to win in Iraq," began to seem petulant, almost querulous.

Kerry appeared more knowledgeable, especially in discussing the threat from North Korea and unsecured nuclear material in Russia. He was persuasive when he complained that "35 countries were in a better position to make weapons than Saddam Hussein" when Bush went to war.

When Bush dismissed Kerry's proposal for engaging North Korea in bilateral talks as a poor move that would marginalize China, Kerry deftly undercut his credibility: "Just because the president says it can't be done doesn't mean it can't be done," Kerry said, adding, "This is the president who said there were weapons, who said `Mission Accomplished.' "

All that said, no one should misunderestimate the appeal of the president's steadfastness. "People know where I stand," he said. "People out there know what I believe." His short, truncated sentences may look disjointed and dull-witted on paper but often came across as sharp and focused when spoken.

On at least three occasions last night, Bush said, "The best way to win is to constantly stay on the offensive." He may have been thinking of his campaign as much as the war on terror. But last night he was not winning.