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(Originally Published Sept. 30, 2004)

'Safe' Debate Yields No Clear Winner

But Kerry scores modest points

It was a night of high expectations dashed by mediocre performances. Last night's debate between the two candidates for President -- the first of three such encounters in advance of the Nov. 2 election -- failed to provide American voters with a compelling reason to change their mind.

Of 'moolahs' and 'Treblinka';
Bush and Kerry slug it out at the University of Miami

In the end, Kerry will be judged the winner, but only by a small margin. He appeared strong, firm, and well-spoken in comparison to his opponent. But he didn't deliver the knockout punch, the performance that would push an incumbent president out of office while the U.S. is at war abroad.

Indeed, those who dislike Bush will argue the President scored more points against himself than Kerry did; many of the 50 million Americans who tuned in last night to the debate on foreign affairs must have wondered what Bush was talking about when he cited a "pre-September 10th mentality." Did he mean a pre-September 11th mentality? Or, perhaps, a September 10th mentality, as in the day before the terror attacks?

Then there was Bush's reference to the Iranian mullahs -- he spoke of "eye-RAIN-ian MOO-lahs," twice. And regarding his relationship with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, Bush called him by his first name, rhyming "Vladimir" with "Latimer."

Kerry supporters shouldn't get too smug, however, because their man got caught up in this spate of verbal gaffery, too. Kerry followed up the President's errors with a doozy of his own: he said he visited KGB headquarters in Moscow at "Treblinka Square." Perhaps he meant to say "Lubyanka Square," the post-Soviet name of the notorious Dzerzhinsky Square in Moscow, longtime headquarters of the dreaded Soviet/Russian security apparatus. Treblinka was, of course, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

In the end, neither man offered much insight into his approach to foreign policy. Both said the U.S. must win the war in Iraq; Kerry said he wouldn't have gone into the Middle East country in the first place while Bush said it was necessary to go in.

Kerry said he had a plan for extracting the U.S. from Iraq but it was difficult to grasp just what, exactly, this plan is. On the other hand, Kerry scored two good points against Bush regarding Iraq: he recalled that "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Al Qaeda attacked us. Osama bin Laden attacked us."

The challenger's best line of the night came when Bush mocked him for first supporting the war, then attacking it. Kerry replied: "I made a mistake about how I talk about the war. The President made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Bush didn't spend the entire night sounding like a hayseed; he scored points early in the evening when pointed out that there is no easy exit from Iraq because "the enemy understands the stakes ... if we lose our wills, we lose." That was an astute and realistic assessment of the quagmire in which the U.S. finds itself. Much as we'd all like to see a speedy end to the conflict, there won't be one.

Last night failed to settle anything conclusively. Tune in October 8 in St. Louis for the second debate.


Email to joel@joelruimy.com

Copyright 2004 Joel Ruimy

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