THE first debate between candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry provided those who watched it Thursday night the first comparative snapshot that voters have had of the two, addressing side-by-side the critical foreign policy and national security issues of the campaign.
It was very useful and a success. The format didn't get in the way, in spite of the 32 pages of rules that governed it, in part because PBS anchor Jim Lehrer facilitated the discussion so smoothly.
On balance, Mr. Kerry won the debate, in the sense that his dignified demeanor and thoughtful answers to questions put the lie to the image of him as an erratic flip-flopper.
Mr. Kerry spoke truth about the Iraq war. Mr. Bush did make a "colossal error of judgment" in taking the United States into it, unnecessarily and with no game plan for a successful conclusion. Mr. Kerry's ideas for ending the war - broadening international involvement and bringing the soldiers home - sound right, although still somewhat unspecific.
Mr. Bush was Mr. Bush. He does not swerve from his story: The United States is spreading liberty in the Middle East; there will be democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan; he has put together a functioning coalition; Iraq interim prime minister Ayad Allawi is an authentic Iraqi leader, not an American instrument.
The problem is that the picture Mr. Bush presents and sticks to does not correspond to the reality that anyone who follows events in Iraq and Afghanistan can see.
Mr. Bush made a ceremony of honoring the now 1,053 dead American troops in Iraq, but showed no recognition of the fact that the reasons he had put forward at the time for sending them there - weapons of mass destruction, a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, America's real enemy - turned out to have been entirely wrong.
Both candidates have their annoying traits.
Mr. Kerry continues to refer to his Vietnam experience; one would have thought he would have figured out by now that Americans want to hear discussion of the country's current issues, not what he or anyone else did 35 years ago.
For his part Mr. Bush seems not to be able to peel the patronizing smirk off his face. Everyone knows that presidents have to make difficult decisions; he didn't have to keep reminding viewers of it. Mr. Bush tried to use the fact that he has had the experience of being president as a reason to re-elect him, rather than to elect Mr. Kerry, with whatever fresh ideas and energy he might bring to the task.
Both candidates should be praised for the generally civil approach they took to each other, starting with the smile and handshake at the beginning and the two families' climb to the stage at the end. Mr. Bush couldn't resist the classic "he's not supporting our troops" line in response to Mr. Kerry's criticism of his conduct of the Iraq war. Mr. Kerry answered that his approach was the one that took best care of our troops by bringing them home as soon as practical.
One criticism of both of them is that, if the subject was foreign affairs, the lion's share of discussion was devoted solely to Iraq. There was some discussion of other issues such as Korea, Libya, Iran, Israel, Sudan, and Russia but it was relatively brief. On the other hand, what the United States does next in Iraq is certainly the key question in the election and one on which it is possible for the voter to see a clear difference between the two candidates.
These debates bear on our lives. That makes Round Two, Oct. 8 in St. Louis, as important as Round One.
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