PRESIDENT BUSH has already managed to lose the second debate with John Kerry -- the high-stakes argument over what happened in the first debate.
Dick Cheney can halt the slide tonight, and Bush himself can just as easily reverse it in St. Louis on Friday, but the steeper hill they face is one of their own making.
The Bush campaign put all of its post-Coral Gables eggs in one basket, called the Kerry Doctrine -- a made-up, cartoon version of the senator's foreign policy views. By contrast, Kerry was able to keep the debate going about credibility in the wars (which he finally managed to separate) inside Iraq and against terrorism worldwide, while focusing on the domestic policy themes that will be more prominent in the days ahead.
The "Kerry Doctrine" is classic Bush campaign think -- the belief that in the modern age of electronic communication and short attention spans, enough money and enough repetition can create any image, even a position that unlucky target does not hold.
The Bush contention, inserted into his standard campaign speech last Friday and Saturday before he took Sunday off to ride his bicycle and begin repairing his self-inflicted damage, is that Kerry is a one-world internationalist who would cripple US military might by subjecting it to foreign veto. The president was so desperate to belabor his new point that he even resurrected his favorite bogeyman as a potential arbiter of US security interests -- France.
The phrase his campaign jumped on, was the "global test" that Kerry said the use of force by this country inevitably faces. The problem for Bush was that more than 60 million people witnessed what Kerry actually said in Florida, and the president was selling too obvious a distortion of it.
Instead of submitting American interests to international veto, here is what Kerry actually said in the first debate:
"No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.
"But if and when you do it, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove it to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."
Bush should have been satisfied with his first response in the debate, namely that he was not "exactly sure" what Kerry meant.
Instead, his campaign went ballistic with its distortion, even producing a TV ad by Saturday that had Kerry surrendering sovereignty when he obviously had not. What Bush's handlers forgot is that Kerry had an opening for counter-attack, and by Saturday night it too was in the form of a very rough commercial: Bush lost the debate and now he's lying about it. The ridiculous argument also enabled Kerry to piggyback the latest disclosures about hyped pre-Iraq invasion intelligence in The New York Times onto his message, adding a fresh element to the post-debate jockeying.
From what I could tell here over the weekend, the Kerry counter was so strong that the Bush campaign pulled back on the airing of its commercial; the most common ad in the Bush mix in Ohio was still that hoary chestnut about flip-flopping. Bush squandered his chance in the post-debate debate and by Sunday had retreated to the sidelines.
By contrast, Kerry has been able to keep the debate going, as well as enlarge it to the domestic issues that matter to the voters just as much. Bush has helped him -- with a stupid goof during the debate, as well as with his "Kerry Doctrine" nonissue after it.
The mistake during the debate was in responding to Kerry's list of unmet needs in the war on terrorism (from more Special Forces troops to a doubling of the inspection rate of containers entering port cities) with a silly crack about the cost. Ever since, Kerry has used the opening to hammer the president for choosing tax cuts for rich people over documented gaps in homeland security.
Kerry has also been able to link domestic and security issues -- as he did in his Ohio appearances over the weekend -- by painting Bush as a president who is too stubborn to see or admit uncomfortable realities. The result is that he has been able both to continue the argument about reality in Iraq and broaden the discussion to include the harsh realities of middle-class (and below) life in a country where wages have been stagnant and the cost of necessities have been soaring.
All of this momentum could of course evaporate in the instant of a poor performance by John Edwards tonight or by Kerry himself in the final debates. The Democrats' campaign has richly earned a fresh look, but that has only increased the pressure to show skeptical voters something worthwhile.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is email@example.com.