- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

How quickly the winds of fortune change in American presidential politics. The best that can be said of Sen. John Kerry’s performance at Friday night’s presidential debate is that it was identical to his previous performance in Florida: steady, articulate and entirely confounding. President Bush, it is widely believed, was off his game during the first debate. While this was indeed unfortunate for his campaign, the country lost a valuable opportunity to hear two radically opposing viewpoints on U.S. foreign policy. In St. Louis, Americans saw a different president, one who understands — and can explain — the war on terror and the role of government in domestic affairs:

m The war on terror. As in Florida, the foreign-policy portion of the debate centered on Iraq. Mr. Kerry came in believing that the just-released Duelfer report on Iraq’s pre-war weapons programs gave him a bunker-buster of evidence that the president’s decision to bring down Saddam Hussein was wrong. Once again, Mr. Kerry couldn’t quite weasel his way out of comments he made before the war, and immediately afterward. “I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq,” the senator insisted. “I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat.” But when asked a question on Iran, Mr. Kerry said, “[Iran] is a threat. It’s a huge threat. And what’s interesting is it’s a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat.” Whoops.

A more telling exchange occurred when Mr. Kerry referenced Osama bin Laden as the chief target in the war on terror and faulted the president for taking his “eye off the ball.” Mr. Bush responded: “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding to say that the war on terror is only Osama bin Laden. The war on terror is to make sure that these terrorist organizations do not end up with weapons of mass destruction.”

m Abortion. When asked about public funding for abortion, Mr. Kerry defended the practice, while issuing the caveat that, because he’s Catholic, he’s personally against abortion. It’s a confusing stance that probably doesn’t convince many pro-life voters to cast a ballot for the senator. Mr. Bush was much more direct in his opposition to federally-funded abortion. Responding to Mr. Kerry’s long-winded answer, he said, “I’m still trying to decipher that.” He then pointed out that despite Mr. Kerry’s personal misgivings about abortion, his opponent voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes killing a pregnant mother a double homicide, and is against parental notification for juvenile abortion. In true Kerry-fashion, the senator replied, “It’s not that simple.”

m Taxes. At one point, a member of the audience asked Mr. Kerry if he would look directly into the camera and pledge not to raise taxes on those making less than $200,000 a year. One could almost hear the groans from the Kerry campaign as their candidate did exactly that: “I am not going to raise taxes,” he said looking into the camera. It’s a comment that could sink a second Kerry administration should Mr. Kerry win on Nov. 2, just as it sunk Mr. Bush’s father reelection bid in 1992. Mr. Bush avoided the obvious historical parallel and cited Mr. Kerry’s proposed federal programs, including his healthcare plan, saying, “Either he’s going to break all those wonderful promises [Mr. Kerry’s] told you about, or he’s going to raise taxes. And I suspect, given his record, he’s going to raise taxes.”

The president didn’t hit all the right notes. He danced around a very direct question about mistakes he’s made as president and his position on appointing justices to the bench wasn’t much better than Mr. Kerry’s.

Already, the conventional wisdom — never a good indicator in Washington — is saying that the town-hall format of the debate played well to Mr.Bush’s strengths as a debater. Perhaps. But the same conventional wisdom also said that domestic issues were Mr.Bush’s weak suit. We suspect that the president merely dusted himself off after a poor showing in Florida and remembered just how he demolished Al Gore in the 2000 debates.

The Kerry campaign should be concerned going into next Wednesday’s third and final debate, which focuses exclusively on domestic policy. Now that the president has rebuilt his image as the world’s leading warrior against terror, as well as reviving the “compassionate conservative” message that got him elected four years ago, the debate momentum has shifted. It’s about to get interesting.

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