HOW DID Bush and Kerry do tonight? A mixed bag for both. Let's look at the scorecard.

Round 1: How will Kerry make America safer?

Kerry says he'll use alliances and won't upset Muslims around the world. Bush stumbles before giving the numbers of al Qaeda killed and captured.

Round to Kerry

Round 2: Will Kerry's election increase the chances of a terror attack?

Showing the certitude that makes thinking people cringe, Bush replies, "That's not going to happen" because he's going to win. "In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work," he says. Kerry calls Iraq a "colossal error in judgment."

Round to Bush

Round 3: What misjudgments has Bush made?

"Where do we start?" Kerry asks. Let the record note that he mentions Vietnam ("as someone who's been in combat") at 9:12 p.m. Unfortunately, he then spins off into talk about multiples of ten. It probably isn't numerology, but who can tell. Bush quotes Kerry's old stance on Saddam. Looking peevish, Bush says "That's part of a pre-September 10th mentality" and gestures to Kerry. It's a good line of attack, and one he should have pressed more. I mean, wasn't that the theme of the Republican convention?

Round to Bush

Round 4: What about going after Saddam and not bin Laden?

Bush says, sensibly, "We have to be able to do both." Kerry flops around about the "rush to war" and how Bush didn't fund body armor.

Round to Bush

Round 5: What would Kerry do differently on Homeland Security?

Kerry attacks Bush's funding of firehouses and the tax cuts, which is weak. But Bush flounders, muttering something like, "Pssshhht" and shrugging his shoulders. In his rebuttal, he nearly shouts that you better have a president who understands that you have to protect America.

Round to Kerry

Round 6: What criteria will you use for knowing when to bring the troops home from Iraq?

Bush says, "When our generals on the ground" tell us that Iraqis are ready to protect themselves "from these terrorists." Kerry says, "Help is on the way." ("I know what it's like to go out on" missions where you don't know what's around the corner--his second Vietnam reference.) During his rebuttal, Bush hits Kerry's $87 billion vote for the first, and, inexplicably, only time.

Round to Kerry

Round 7: Are Americans now dying for a mistake?

After saying he agrees with Bush, Kerry says Iraq is like FDR invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor. And again with the summits. And then Halliburton. Welcome to the portion of the program. An increasingly surly Bush responds, "That's just absurd. . . . What does he say to Tony Blair. . . . You can't expect to build alliances when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side-by-side with Americans in Iraq." Ouch.

Round to Bush

Round 8: What was Bush's miscalculation on post-war conditions in Iraq?

Bush says, basically, that he didn't count on the Baathists being cowards who wouldn't fight and also, Tommy Franks screwed up the plans by winning too quickly. Then for good measure: "I know we won't [win in Iraq] if we send mixed signals." Kerry makes news by saying that now he would not have gone into Iraq knowing what he knows (now). Or maybe this isn't news. To be honest, I've lost track.

Round to Kerry

Round 9: How has Bush lied about Iraq?

Kerry says that he's "never used the harshest word which you just have." Hmmm . . . can that be true? Someone should look into it, since this isn't the type of thing the RNC would send out a press release about. Bush's rebuttal is a non sequitur: Osama bin Laden doesn't get to decide how America defends itself. Huh? Bush seems personally offended at the suggestion that anyone else might get to do his job. And for the fourth time or so, says, "That's not how a commander in chief acts."

Kerry is going to win this round, but he makes one gigantic mistake: "I've had one position, one consistent position," on Iraq, he says. Oops, that should go in an ad.

Round to Kerry

Round 10: Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost in lives?

Bush's finest moment so far. He names a woman he met whose husband died in Iraq and talks about how they prayed together. "I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy. Because I understand the stakes of this war on terror," he says. "Every life is precious, that's what distinguishes us from the enemy," he says. If only he could have brought himself to name this "enemy" he keeps referencing.

Kerry's rebuttal is, "I understand what the president is talking about because I know what it means to lose people in combat," and, that "reminds me of my own thinking when I came back from fighting in that war." If you're keeping score at home, this is the fourth time he's brought up Vietnam.

Bush starts his rebuttal by laughing out loud and then coming back to his lodestar: "You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions." Kerry's rebuttal uses Colin Powell as a club against Bush and then starts talking about something called "the Pottery Barn Rule." They teach it at SAIS, you know. That and the little known Crate & Barrel Corollary.

Round to Bush

Round 11: Give us specifics as to how you would end U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Kerry talks about 14 military bases in Iraq and guarding the Oil Ministry and we're off to MoveOn land again.

Round to Bush

Round 12: Is it now more or less likely that you'll go into a preemptive war again?

Bush says, "by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages" it is less likely we'll have to use troops again. Kerry rebuts that "the enemy" was Osama, not Saddam, and that Bush should have used U.S. troops, not Afghan troops, at Tora Bora. See? Bush should be using multinational troops where he's using American troops and American troops where he was using foreign allies. That makes sense.

Round to Bush

Round 13: What is your view on preemptive war?

Kerry says the POTUS always has that option and then, amazingly brings up JFK's consultation with the French during the Cuban missile crisis. That is, as the saying goes, a big matzah ball hanging out there.

Shockingly, Bush passes up the opportunity. His rebuttal is, however, devastating. He says he doesn't know what it means to "pass a global test. . . . My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people." That's a standing 8-count.

Round to Bush

Round 14: Can diplomacy solve the problems in Iran and North Korea?

President Bush wants to work with the "Moo-lahs" to convince Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Kerry beats Bush over the head with Powell again. This is Kerry's best moment, until Jim Lehrer steps in. Lehrer wants to clarify what type of negotiations the two candidates favor. Bush wants multilateral, not bilateral. Kerry says, naturally, "I want both!"

Round to Kerry

Round 15: Darfur--why won't you send in troops?

Kerry mentions the "back-door draft" and says we're too overextended in Iraq to do Darfur. Bush, interestingly enough, knows about the timing of the African rainy seasons.

Round to Kerry

Round 16: Are there underlying character issues serious enough to deny Kerry the job?

For looking like such a sourpuss all night, Bush is limber and charming here: "Whew, that's a loaded question," he smiles. He admires Kerry's military service and appreciates that he's a great dad and that his daughters have been so kind to the Bush girls. He admires Kerry's service in the Senate, but not his record. "He changes positions on the war in Iraq" and on things "in his core" "in his heart of hearts" and, even worse, sends "mixed messages." Kerry makes the fair point that "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and wrong."

Round to Bush

Round 17: What do you think is the single biggest threat facing America?

Kerry doesn't hesitate: "Nuclear proliferation."

Round to Kerry

Round 18: Did Bush misjudge Vladimir Putin?

President Bush thinks that it's important to have good personal relationships with former KGB agents as they try to roll back important civil freedoms. This way you can disagree constructively. Kerry doesn't have a better answer, but did get a neat-o tour of KGB headquarters right after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Round to Kerry

I've got this fight scored dead-even: It's a draw, 9 rounds for Kerry to 9 rounds for Bush. Of course there are intangibles to consider. On the whole, Kerry was more relaxed and polished--and certainly calmer. He also managed to sneak in a fifth Vietnam reference during his closing remarks ("I defended this country as a young man in war.") Kerry was a grounded presence and his performance should give Democrats hope.

Bush was, as someone once put it, more tart than sweet. At times the president faltered and you could see the wheels spinning as he flipped through his mental Rolodex, looking for the right card. Peevish is the word which kept coming to mind. He was, however, ruthlessly on-message. If Kerry really is being damaged by the sense that he's a flip-flopper who doesn't know his own mind--and the higher-ups on Team Bush insist that this is the key to beating him--then the president did exactly what he wanted to do. But if the central issue of this election is the September 10 party versus the September 12 party, then Bush may have let slip a fair opportunity.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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