PAUL GIGOT: One thing is sure, the first debate was serious and substantive, and voters could get a very clear idea of the differences between the two candidates. Most of it centered on the war in Iraq.
KERRY: Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it. And he rushed the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace. You don't take America to war unless you have a plan to win the peace. This president just -- I don't know if he sees what's really happening out there. But it's getting worse by the day.
BUSH: My opponent says help is on the way, but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time?" That's not a message a commander-in-chief gives, or that this is a great diversion. As well, help is on the way, but it's certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the 87 billion dollar supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it.
KERRY: 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. Which is worse?"
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, I thought we really did get a very clear distinction between the two candidates on the Iraq war. John Kerry hit again and again that this was a mistake, a colossal mistake. Do you think he was convincing and persuading people that it was a mistake and that he has a plan for victory?
DAN HENNINGER: I don't think he necessarily convinced anyone that it was a mistake. And he doesn't have a plan for victory. What he has is a plan to get out, to leave. He clearly thinks it was a mistake. He has no intention of staying in Iraq. They're not going to cut and run, but he's going to unwind our involvement there. Whereas, the President is clearly committed not only to Iraq and the Middle East and transforming the systems of government there. That is a very clear distinction, a real choice.
PAUL GIGOT: What are the hints there, that he is going to pull out, Susan? Is that right? Do you agree with Dan's argument? He is saying, look, we'll start to pull out with six months if we get enough allies. He is sending some signals that he thinks this is a diversion.
SUSAN LEE: Well, he is, because he has to distinguish himself from Bush because this is a presidential campaign. But I think that if you listened to everything he was saying on Thursday night, he was saying that he was going to be prudent and cautious about pulling out troops, and he did say, answering, I might say, your editorial, he said several times he was in it to win.
Now what made me nervous is, he still hasn't developed the second leg of his argument against Bush and the war in Iraq. And he was very close. He's got to be able to answer. When Bush says, "The world is safer because of Saddam Hussein being in jail," Kerry has got to be able to say, "But would it have been safer if we had Osama bin Laden in jail?"
PAUL GIGOT: He did also bring up the word Fallujah, which I was surprised at. Of course, that is the thing that we've criticized the president for, not pursuing the terrorists in that sanctuary, which has really created some staging areas for the terrorists to strike our troops. But he didn't pursue that, and then say, "Here's what I'm going to do, and I'm absolutely going to clear those out." He just brought it up as if he felt obliged to, but then he didn't pursue it. Were you persuaded, Dorothy?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I was not. But I laughed when you said, but he didn't pursue it with specifics, because this is what we're all waiting for, a specific from him, like Eisenhower's "I will go to Korea." Maybe, he didn't say what he would do in Korea. But something. But to say merely, "I have a plan."
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, we've supported the war in Iraq for a long time, going back before this president was in office. Did the president make the best case for that effort that you've heard?
DAN HENNINGER: No, absolutely not. I think he's really got to step it up in these debates, anyway. I thought his answer on Iraq was really quite disorganized, as it was on proliferation. But this is the President. He's been sitting in the Oval Office every day dealing with Iraq, and he didn't talk about the victory in Najaf over the Sadr militia, nor did he talk about the reconstruction that has been going on by the soldiers, rebuilding the school systems over there. And the fact that the north and the south, by and large, are stabilized. He could have gone through a list of achievements over there. Instead, he dropped it.
PAUL GIGOT: Bush is strongest at the vision level, whereas Kerry is stronger at the detail level, it seems to me. And on an issue as complicated as Iraq, you really have to be able to make the case for both.
All right, let's go to another piece of tape here. One of the differences that came through clearly in the debate revolved around using international alliances to help solve problems ranging from Iraq to nuclear proliferation, Kerry more in favor, Bush more skeptical.
KERRY: No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test, where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.
BUSH: I'm not exactly sure what you mean, "passes the global test," you take preemptive action if you pass a global test. My attitude is, you take pre-emptive action in order to protect the American people. That you act in order to make this country secure.
PAUL GIGOT: Susan, my Republican sources were saying after the debate that they thought that this was the one big opening that John Kerry gave them. And the next day, in Allentown, the President brought up this "global test" subject. Do you think it really is a political opening for the President to hit back at John Kerry on the question of who's best on the terror war?
SUSAN LEE: Oh yes, I think it takes back everything that Kerry was at great pains to say during the debate, which is I am not going to seek permission to go to war. With this one sentence, he just kind of erased it. And if he calls attention to the other stuff then he's going to be accused of being a flip flopper again. But I will say that Bush muddied his own water by later on in the debate talking about having multi-lateral talks with North Korea, where Kerry was kind of for a more stripped down, bilateral talks. And the whole discussion really was one of those discussions that only people who live in Washington could really love.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: You know, it's really true that however he may have muddied the water there, it's really Kerry who went back to the kind of thing that has done him in overall, this vague reference to, "we have to explain to the people," and "we have to explain to the world." And Bush's instincts were very clear and on target there. He smelled the trap that Kerry got himself in.
PAUL GIGOT: Let's deal with the substance here for a second of allies. Do we have a prospect of getting them, other than the Iraqis who we're recruiting and training? I mean, the French foreign minister said this week, "We're not helping." The Germans have said flat out, "We're not helping." Who is really going to come to our aid in Iraq, whether or not John Kerry is elected or George Bush is re-elected?
DAN HENNINGER: Well, this is a very key issue. And this is why I thought the debate -- it was a terrific debate, it was very substantive. It offered the American people a choice. I mean, we're talking about two separate world views here, whether it is Iraq or whether it is proliferation or Iran or the next crisis down the road. John Kerry believes in diplomacy and using international institutions, and Germany and France, to surround a problem and work it. Whereas, George Bush, the Republican administration, believes in leaning more harder and going beyond merely international institutions and support to work a problem. These are two entirely different ways of dealing with the world. And I think the American people were served very well by being given a clear choice in that debate.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I think that's going to be a choice that is driven here between now and the election. We're going to hear a lot more of this.
So let's go to another segment here. One of the themes of the debate was the issue of character. As President Bush continued to press his description of Kerry sending mixed messages that would make it impossible for him to be an effective leader. Kerry, in turn, sharpened his attack on the President, seeming to call him stubborn and inflexible.
KERRY: It's one thing to be certain. But you can be certain and be wrong. It's another to be certain and be right, or be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.
BUSH: Listen, I fully agree that one should shift tactics. But what I won't do is change my core values. Because of politics, or because of pressure. There's enormous pressure on the president. He cannot wilt under that pressure. Otherwise, the world won't be better off.
PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, before the debates conventional wisdom was that -- and all the polls showed, really -- that John Kerry was behind President Bush on these issues of personal qualities, leadership, whether you can stick to your convictions, likeability. Do you think John Kerry addressed any of those weaknesses, and made up some ground on those questions.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think he did. I think he dropped he Old Testament prophet tone just a little bit, and began to talk like a regular person. But just a little bit. I mean, it didn't go great. And he lost that sort of haranguing tone of the prosecutor in there. So that he lowered the decibel level. It was a softer tone. Those things matter. This is television.
PAUL GIGOT: One of the best things that happened, I thought, for John Kerry was the timing. The lights. They said basically, you've got to keep your answer short. You've got to keep it right within those limits. And he did. And he was disciplined, instead of the rambling John Kerry we often see on the --
DANIEL HENNINGER: He ought to carry those lights around with him on the campaign trail.
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. But the President is still making this issue about personal fortitude, I'll stick with it, John Kerry won't. Did he score any points?
SUSAN LEE: Well I thought that John Kerry's best moment was when he said, "I have never wilted in my life." Right away, in my mind, a news reel started unfolding of Kerry as a young man fighting the war in Viet Nam, of Kerry testifying against -- all these things, Kerry being beat up in the campaign. And yet, there was Kerry, standing there on Thursday night, good shirt, right? Good hairdo, fabulous suit. And I thought, yeah, okay, this guy will never wilt.
PAUL GIGOT: All right. Quickly, the debates often change election. The debates in 1960, 1980, 2000 arguably did. Other debates don't. We don't remember them: 1984, 1988, '92, '96. Quickly, do you think this debate changed the dynamics of this election in a way that is lifting John Kerry to where he has a chance to win?
SUSAN LEE: Yeah, I think this is 1980. I think this is Carter/Reagan, when after the debate people felt much more comfortable with Reagan than they had.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan?
DAN HENNINGER: It's not a normal election, and it's a historic war election. We have two men who definitely disagree on the way to conduct the war on terror. I think it is a historic election.
PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I don't think it's a seminal change. I think it's an improvement in John Kerry's chances, slightly. I think it is -- as everyone said, it will tighten the polls a bit.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, he prevented a run-away. But we've still got a long way to go, and I think President Bush still comes out of this with the edge. All right. Thank you. Next subject.