[MR. LEHRER:] Candidates may not direct a question to each other. There will be two-minute closing statements but no opening statements.
Then there was one of several dodges:
MR. LEHRER: New question. Mr. President, two minutes. Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead. I have -- I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions that I've made. And I've made some tough decisions.
Then there was the revision of history:
[MR. BUSH:] [The enemy] showed up in Afghanistan when they were there because they tried to beat us and they didn't, and they're showing up in Iraq for the same reason. They're trying to defeat us. And if we lose our will, we lose; but if we remain strong and resolute, we will defeat this enemy.
Then there were the name-drops, with the subtle Oedipal dig:
[SEN. KERRY:] I'm proud that important military figures are supporting me in this race. Former chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili. Just yesterday, General Eisenhower's son, General John Eisenhower, endorsed me. General -- Admiral William Crowe, General Tony McPeak, who ran the Air Force war so effectively for his father, all believe I would make a stronger commander in chief.
The zinger, and the angry reply:
[SEN. KERRY] And it wasn't until former Secretary of State Jim Baker and General Scowcroft and others pushed publicly and said, You got to go to the U.N., that the president finally changed his mind -- his campaign has a word for that -- and went to the United Nations....
[PRESIDENT BUSH] So I went to the United Nations. I didn't need anybody to tell me to go to the United Nations, I decided to go there myself.
I don't think we want to get to how he's going to pay for all these promises. It's like a huge tax gap and -- anyway, that's for another debate.
The talking points have been hashed out already. Really, what can be added? John Kerry won on style, though he waffled away his main point. If the war on Iraq is a "colossal error in judgment," isn't it also true that American troops have "died for a mistake?" ("No," Kerry blurted, contradicting himself.) But Bush lost the opportunity to demonstrate his resolve, instead appearing battle-weary, or, worse, uninterested, flustered, and frazzled.
If there is no big Kerry bounce, it is because the majority of Americans have already decided; the debates are an echo chamber for political prejudice. Kerry's facade of determination, his intelligent demeanor, his masterful oratory matter only to his supporters, who sigh in relief that their candidate handled himself well against a formidable opponent.
Kerry's best zinger came from the DeGaulle anecdote. The word of the president is supposed to be enough; Bush has taken that word and stripped it of meaning with the zeal of a used car salesman.
If anything, Kerry is as resolute as Bush prides himself in being. He is staunchly political, and he does contradict himself, and marches onward as if no one will notice. Which flip-flopper ought to win the White House?