Rupert Cornwell: The race for the White House is wide open again

Exposed to criticism, the President looked by turns peevish, bored and livid, his thin lips tight with disbelief

The Independent

02 October 2004

We may not quite have had a debate. But we sure have a race. Complain all you like about the stilted format of Thursday night's confrontation at Coral Gables - the silly coloured warning lights, the lack of follow-ups, the weirdly silent audience. Even so, it was by far the most revealing episode of the campaign thus far. And my guess is that the US presidential election is once again wide open.

Honesty compels a buyer-beware warning. My track record in these matters is lousy. I thought John Kerry capped an excellent convention in Boston with a terrific speech. Not so, was the subsequent considered judgement. I thought George Bush's speech to his convention was flat and uninspiring. It turns out to have been a winner that broke open what until then had been an even contest. Finally, I invariably underestimate the brutal effectiveness of Republican attack politics. Nonetheless, I will venture that Kerry was the clear winner of the first debate - in what he said, how he said it, and how he looked. And in doing so, he may have changed the dynamic of the contest.

A presidential election is normally a referendum on the incumbent. Thus far, however, the Bush/Cheney campaign had turned standard procedure on its head. The campaign was about Kerry, his indecisiveness, his alleged "flip-flopping". Was he fit to lead the country in a time of war? But this time, the challenger was on the attack, forcing viewers to have another look at Bush. And what I, at least, saw was not pretty.

In a remotely open setting, Bush is not good at defending his policies. He seemed to have brought along only 35 minutes of ideas for a 90-minute debate. Time and again the President reverted to stock platitudes, about the spread of liberty, the need to avoid "mixed messages". Once again, you realise how his White House works, without dissent, without serious critical examination of opposing viewpoints. The supreme sin is to change one's mind. The supreme virtue is certainty (aka "moral clarity"), even if the certainty is utterly wrong.

He didn't look very good either. God bless the networks for ignoring the rule banning cut-away shots, showing the candidate who is not speaking. Kerry wore a respectfully neutral expression as Bush held forth. By contrast, when Kerry exposed him to that unaccustomed experience of criticism to his face, the President looked by turns peevish, bored and livid, his thin lips tight with disbelief that anyone dared think differently from himself. If anyone looked like a President, it was Kerry, not Bush.

Where does this leave us? In presidential debate terms this was no 1996 when incumbent Bill Clinton put away Bob Dole in the first debate as the challenger failed to demonstrate why the country needed a change. With the contest tilting their man's way, Bush's handlers were hoping to wrap up the contest in a debate playing to his strong suit, as the trusted commander-in-chief in a time of war. But Mr Kerry raised more than enough doubts to keep the contest alive.

For me, the key exchange came when the President threw out one of those lazy phrases that pass for Bush-think - justifying the attack on Iraq on the grounds that "the enemy attacked us". Kerry leapt at the chance to do what he must if he is to prevail, and draw the distinction between the war on terror and the unprovoked invasion of Iraq: "Saddam Hussein did not attack us. Osama bin Laden did." Bush was forced into a defensive crouch, "I know Bin Laden attacked us." It was not the incumbent's finest hour.

However, the challenger did not do what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter in 1980, using the sole candidates' debate to show he could safely be entrusted with the presidency. That year, an unpopular sitting president nonetheless entered the debate with a slight lead because of doubts about his opponent. But Reagan came across as sane and competent, who would not pull the nuclear trigger against the Soviets. Thereafter, he pulled away in the polls and won by a landslide. That will not happen this time.

Kerry has a higher bar to clear. He must persuade the country to switch leaders in time of war. Implicit in that is acceptance by the people that Iraq was, as he put it on Thursday, "a colossal mistake". Bush's genius - the trait that makes him so hard to beat - is that his simple verities of good versus evil, democracy versus tyranny, and such fatuities as "they hate our freedom" play precisely into the preferred image Americans have of themselves. To repudiate Bush is thus to make the painful admission that you are not quite what you thought you were.

With the skills of the accomplished debater that he is, Kerry this week placed that uncomfortable question on the table. Whether Americans will admit he has a point is quite another matter.