October dawns bright and blue across the land, just as the poet (Helen Hunt Jackson) said it would. "Suns and skies and clouds of June, and flowers of June together . . . cannot rival for one hour October's bright blue weather," and so the debates of early summer could be safely ignored. No longer. Now we really have to listen up and pay close attention.
George W. Bush and John F. Kerry underscored the importance of getting our attention in their first debate in Miami. They resisted the temptation to go for haymakers or look for opportunities to exploit gaffes - indeed, the Gaffe Patrol could have taken the night off. What we got was an unusual discussion of foreign policy, if not necessarily a real debate. That should have satisfied the wonks, and it was the right stuff for the rest of us, too.
The war on terror - specifically how it is being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq - moved front and center, where it should be. This is the emphasis from now until Nov. 2. Even John Kerry had no argument with the president's assertions that if we don't prevail against the mad "moolahs" and their fanatical followers, the purveyors of cruelty, malice and mayhem, there won't be anything else to consider.
The devil, literally, is in the details, and there is difference aplenty in how the two candidates perceive what must be done. "Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it," Mr. Kerry said on Thursday night. "He rushed to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace. Now that is not the judgment that a president of the United States ought to make."
Look who's talking, the president countered, taking note that the senator has several positions on whether the Iraq war was justified, which calls into question his fitness to serve as president.
"What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way: 'Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time'?" Mr. Bush asked, reprising a standard line in the Kerry stump speech. "That's not a message a commander-in-chief gives. Or this is 'a great diversion.'
"'Help is on the way,' but it's certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it."
Someone tuning into the campaign late might think that Karl Rove and Bob Shrum or Joe Lockhart, the strategists Washington insiders regard as the smart guys behind the curtain, had revised the famous slogan of the first Clinton campaign to make it read: "It's foreign policy, Stupid."
It's a bow to the women, and perhaps even late recognition of a fact that every woman knows, that women are fundamentally interested in the same issues men are. It's just that women interpret and respond to issues differently. What woman wouldn't be interested in terror, and how to eliminate the men (and women) who threaten murder and mayhem on her children and the children of other women the world over?
This was dramatically illustrated on one of the cable-TV "spin shows" following the first presidential debate, when the host asked Art Torres, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, whether he thought the president's repeated emphasis on keeping America safe from terrorists would reassure women voters.
"I think women are interested most in keeping the government out of their bodies," he replied, and glanced hopefully at the woman on the panel, as if he expected a pat on the head for his "correct" answer. All he got was a sigh and a frown.
George W. Bush and the Republicans, having seen previous campaigns wind up in the ditch called Gender Gap, finally get it. This year the reliable Republican issues, like tax cuts and national security, are couched in terms that fall comfortably on feminine ears. Tax cuts, for example, are presented as balm for the irritants not just of small-business enterprises, but to woman-owned small-business enterprises. Laura Bush, in her speech to the Republican National Convention, promised that help was on the way to small-business owners like Carmella Chaifos, "the only woman to own a tow-truck company in all of Iowa."
The president similarly put the war on terror in family-friendly terms. "Sept. 11 changed how America must look at the world," he said. "My opponent talks about weapons inspectors. The facts are that Saddam Hussein was systematically deceiving the inspectors. That's the kind of a pre-Sept. 11 mentality, to hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place."
You don't have to be a woman to understand the bright blue logic of that.