Joel Mowbray
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With Kerry?s camp relentlessly dampening expectations for the Democrat?s debating skills, the senator from Massachussets cleared the low bar he needed to in order to improve his standing in the public?s mind.

But what Kerry failed to do was the one goal he needed to accomplish more than any other: offering a clear, alternative vision.

To his credit, Kerry was well coifed, poised, and surprisingly succinct.  He managed to make his wildly divergent positions seem slightly more consistent, and he even scored on a few rhetorical digs.

Missing from the 90-minute event, however, was any coherent Kerry plan for what to do in Iraq if Americans do choose to change horses midstream.  The Democrat hammered home that he would secure former Soviet nukes in 4 years instead of 13?this is the issue gripping Americans, after all?but how exactly does he propose building this grand, sweeping international coalition to handle Iraq and the rest of the war on terror?

While Kerry reiterated that he thought Saddam was a bad guy?who aside from Michael Moore can argue otherwise??but he didn?t specify what he would have done to take out Saddam.  Unfortunately, Bush did not use this opportunity to remind his challenger that this summer, the Democrat said the war in Iraq was justified?regardless of whether or not WMDs are ever found.

Where Bush had his best moments were tearing into Kerry?s own words.  And what a smorgasbord from which the President could feast. 

Kerry, lest we forget, voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it.  And after labeling Saddam a grave threat, his latest line is that the war in Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The obvious question that Bush didn?t even have to pose is: if Kerry keeps dwelling on how it was the ?wrong? war, how can he be the guy to lead us to eventual victory?

Though it was not a grade-A night for Kerry, the Democrat clearly gained ground on the evening.  How much is not likely to be known for a few days, but the early?stress early??flash polls? indicate that people who watched the debate gave Kerry the nod by a roughly 10-point margin.

Before anyone reads too much into the ultra-early poll results, though, some history: Walter Mondale was declared winner over Ronald Reagan in their first debate.

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Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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