President Bush blew his chance

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 4, 2004

Commentary by Dick Morris

President Bush’s positions on the issues aired in the debate last night are so sound and John Kerry’s so contradictory that the Republican could not help but win the debate. But, despite the contradictions of his positions, Kerry showed Americans that he looks and acts like a commander-in-chief and someone we could trust with power.

Of course the United States needs to have China at the table to pressure Kim Jong Il. How else are we going to get the North Koreans to give away their nuclear weapons and stop building more?

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Obviously a president can’t ask our troops to suffer and die for a war he calls a mistake and “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Clearly our allies will be roiled by a president who calls them a coalition of the “bribed and the coerced” and belittles their contributions even as their soldiers risk their lives.

Certainly a free Iraq would send a signal to Iran – which is the only way we can get the mullahs to abstain from nuclear-weapon development.

Plainly, we need bunker-busting nuclear weapons. Where do you think the WMDs are – in store windows?

Unquestionably, we need a missile defense. Why do you think North Korea is testing its missiles?

So Bush could not but win the debate. Kerry has taken such awkward and obviously wrong positions that Bush had to emerge as last night’s winner.

But Bush seemed disengaged, distracted and, at times, even bored. His performance reminded me of the style – or lack of it – that he brought to the pre-primary debates of 2000.

He seemed to convey a message of: Don’t bother me, leave me alone, you don’t understand and I can’t bother to explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

The president’s closing statement was so focused and polished, so intent and energetic that the contrast between a speech he has memorized and one which he ad-libs was obvious to all who watched. If the Bush of the last two minutes was on display for the 90 minutes, the election would have been over last night.

By contrast, Kerry looked presidential, collected and, above all, strong and confident. If you’d seen the two men without knowing which was the president and which the candidate, you’d have guessed wrong. Kerry looked like the guy in charge.

The essential message for Bush is that he had better get his head back in the game and pay more attention to his performance if he doesn’t want to get massacred in the second debate – which will focus on domestic policy, Kerry’s strong suit.

Bush needs to undergo the same kind of transformation he went through in the 2000 primaries. He started smirking his way through those debates, obviously resting on his lead and feeling put upon to have to debate the pigmies vying for the nomination. But when he understood that he was facing a life-and-death challenge from John McCain, he got it together and showed energy and determination and won the subsequent debates.

He has to realize that he is in the fight of his life and bring passion, discipline, focus and commitment to the next debates or he will lose.

Mr. President, last night you looked like it was the end of the fourth quarter, and you were running out the clock. This is a tough race, and it’s going to take your focused energy to win it. Last night you looked like you were just mailing it in.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years.