After two months spent reacting to attacks on his own record, John Kerry last night succeeded in turning the roving spotlight of the 2004 presidential campaign onto President Bush's Iraq policies, blaming Bush for allowing the United States to bear "90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the costs."
Bush, following the same effective strategy of his past debates, stuck to a few core themes, such as his argument that Kerry's attacks on the war undermine American troops and insult US allies.
But for most of the first hour, during which Iraq was the prime focus, Bush's repetition seemed insistent rather than firm, and his body language -- sighing, clenching his teeth, rolling his eyes -- suggested a man on the defensive.
Kerry, as had been expected, was more fluid and facile in scoring conventional debating points -- answering Bush's arguments with fresh rebuttals. But his easy manner projected an unexpected confidence that has been missing for most of the general-election campaign, and he leavened his senatorial manner with more-direct answers.
After Bush reminded the audience that Kerry had once said he voted for $87 billion for the Iraq war "before he voted against it," Kerry offered a wry retort reminiscent of Ronald Reagan.
"Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war, but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq," Kerry said, pausing dramatically. "Which is worse?" In exchanges like that one, both candidates may have made their points, but Kerry's aggressiveness was more of a surprise to an electorate conditioned, both by attacks from his opponent and by his own equivocal statements, to think of him as weak.
In recent weeks, as Bush has maintained a lead in most polls, Republicans had almost succeeded in turning Kerry into a figure of derision; after a forceful debate performance, the disdain expressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and many GOP members of Congress may seem more strained.
Kerry also gave national exposure to some of the criticisms of Bush's policies that critics said were not effectively aired at the determinedly upbeat Democratic convention in Boston.
Kerry charged that Bush "rushed into war without a plan to win the peace"; that parents of soldiers troll "the Internet to get the state-of-the-art body gear to send their kids"; that soldiers were maimed because the Bush administration did not provide proper armor for Humvees; that Osama bin Laden was surrounded in Tora Bora but Bush "outsourced the job" of catching him to "local warlords."
Bush bored in on Kerry's past depiction of Iraq as "the wrong war at the wrong time," saying such a statement sends the wrong message to troops and allies, and "not the message a commander chief gives." He also shot back Kerry for saying the president should pass a "global test where your countrymen, your people understand what you're doing" before initiating military action.
"I don't know what you mean passes the global test, you take preemptive action if you pass global test," Bush said. "My attitude is you take preemptive action order to protect the American people."
At times, the different styles of the two men stood in stark contrast, and each was effective in his way: Kerry deftly wove facts into arguments while Bush offered personal commitments and expressions of his values.
Discussing homeland security, each addressed the question from moderator Jim Lehrer in his own distinctive way.
"Jim, let me tell you exactly what I'll do, and there is a long list," Kerry said. "First of all, what kind of mixed message does it send when you have $500 million going over to Iraq to put police officers on the streets of Iraq, and the president is cutting the COPS program in America? What kind of a message does it send to be sending money to open firehouses in Iraq, but we're shutting firehouses that are the first responders here in America. The president hasn't put one nickel, not one nickel, into the effort to fix some of our tunnels and bridges and most exposed subway systems."
Bush said: "Of course we're doing everything we can to protect America. That's my job. I work with Director [Robert S.] Mueller of the FBI; comes in my office when I'm in Washington every morning, talking about how to protect us. There's a lot of really good people working hard to do so. It's hard work."
But the built-in constraints of a debate about foreign policy allowed Bush only a few opportunities to display the easy personal touch that many observers thought was his secret weapon against Kerry; only at the very end, when he bantered a bit with Lehrer, did Bush seem fully at ease.
By then, Kerry had scored a lot of points and perhaps forced voters to look at him with fresh eyes.
If they do, the debate last night will have transformed the 2004 presidential race.