One of the president's better moments came when he forcefully asserted that "there's just no doubt in my mind" that the United States would "rue the day" if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to stay in power.
Both men repeatedly invoked themes and slogans from their campaign stump speeches, but the chief difference was that President Bush spoke from the experience of actually being president during one of this country's most challenging periods, whereas Sen. Kerry could only say what he would have done in the past and would do in the future. But what he says he would do is not much different from what President Bush is already doing. Kerry's high hurdle is to persuade voters to change horses mid-war, especially when his statements on that war, as the president repeatedly noted, have been in regular contradiction.
One of the president's better rejoinders came after Kerry ridiculed the number of allies and the small number of forces that most - not Great Britain - have committed in Iraq. After Kerry called for more allied help and pledged to attract them to the cause of stabilizing Iraq (but not saying how), Bush retorted, "You can't expect to build alliances when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side by side with American troops in Iraq." He wondered why any ally would join the United States for what Kerry has called a "grand diversion." The rebuttal went unanswered by Kerry.
The president was at his best when he mentioned time he spent with a particular war widow. Kerry was the most articulate and won on presentation and style. But on substance, experience, vision and conviction, it was President Bush's debate to lose. He didn't.
Now it's on to the town hall format, where Bush has shown he can shine. And let's hope for some better questions.
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