MIAMI - Moderator Jim Lehrer said to Kerry, "You spoke to Congress in 1971, after you came back from Vietnam, and you said, `How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?' Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?" Kerry said "No."
Not only did he say no, he rushed to say no as if he feared being seen as un-American.
It kept a very strong night from being a night for the ages. Kerry was clearly more prepared than Bush on issues about many countries in the very foreign policy debate that Bush wanted first.
Stay-the-course Bush ran out of material halfway through the 90 minutes. He often looked away from Kerry with an air of how dare he have to share the podium with this mosquito. Seven times, Bush tried to swat Kerry away with a variant of "They're not going to follow somebody who says this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time."
America may not be ready to follow Kerry just yet, but with two more debates, foreign policy out of the way, and the shaky economy looming as the next topic, Bush will need more than a fly swatter.
For all his claiming to be resolute and certain about everything, there was a point when Bush was asked by Lehrer if Iraq makes another "preemptive" war likely. Bush said, "But the enemy attacked us, Jim."
That allowed Kerry to say, "The president just said something extraordinary . . . Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us."
At one other key point point, Kerry gave an informed historical reason why the United States needs to earn trust "that passes the global test" before launching a preemptive war. Bush appeared befuddled, saying, "I'm not exactly sure what you mean, `passes the global test.' " Of course Bush wouldn't know, since he bypassed the globe in going to war.
A one-note Bush was ripe for being finished off. But Kerry did not go for the frontal assault. Even if he did not want to answer Lehrer directly to say that soldiers are dying for a mistake, Kerry could have at least said they were dying for a mistaken policy or are dying after a series of mistakes.
A direct answer could have ended once and for all the charge about him being a flip-flopper. The good news for Kerry is that the polls will probably tighten because of his performance. But if he loses the election, his campaign may have died for this mistake.
© 2004 The Boston Globe