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After first-debate stumbles, president regains footing

Simple, direct, a little insistent at points, President Bush last night was far more recognizable than in the first presidential debate.

Love him or hate him -- and polls indicate that he provokes powerful feelings -- the Bush who took the stage at a town hall-style encounter in St. Louis was the same politician the country got to know over the past four years, laying out his stands and refusing to backtrack.

The difference from his faltering performance in the first debate was evident from the start.

''I can see why people at your workplace think he changes positions, because he does," Bush told a questioner about Senator John F. Kerry, in the president's first response.

Kerry, who is not as well known as Bush, came in with a different mission, trying to show that he is personable enough to appear in people's living rooms for four years.

Addressing the citizen-questioners by their first names, staring directly into the camera, flashing a warm smile at moderator Charles Gibson even under tough questioning, Kerry acted like a gracious host overseeing a dinner-table discussion.

But he may have been a bit too genial: He allowed Bush to define the big news of the day -- a report on monthly job gains that most economists agreed was disappointing -- as good news. And he allowed Bush to present the Iraq Survey Group's conclusion that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor active weapons programs as a confirmation of Hussein's dangerousness, because the dictator wanted to restart his programs if and when sanctions were lifted.

Bush needed a strong performance more than Kerry did, and he delivered one. In the process he probably won back some of the voters put off by his performance in the first debate.

Kerry probably did not alienate any voters who thought well of his performance in the first debate, but was less crisp, in part because of the town-hall format.

''First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins," Kerry said in response to a question about whether he would use federal funds for abortions.

He went into a long, personal discussion on his sense of responsibility as a politician not to promote his own views and to respect the rights and choices of all people. The answer probably was intended to reassure Catholic voters, who make up a disproportionate number of voters in the most competitive ''swing" states, that Kerry, a Catholic himself, was mindful of religious values. He also probably meant to demonstrate his respect for the questioner and her views.

But in a debate in which Bush advertised the firmness of his stands as a mark of character, and portrayed Kerry as unprincipled, the answer seemed unnecessarily nuanced and diffuse. On this most polarizing of all issues, Kerry offered a nod to people on all sides of the matter.

''I'm trying to decipher that," Bush fired back. ''My answer is, we're not going to spend taxpayers' money on abortion."

Bush has sought throughout the campaign to portray this kind of directness -- and his characteristic unwillingness to rethink his positions -- as a mark of leadership. In the first debate, Kerry had a powerful retort: It's possible to be certain and be wrong.

This time, Kerry responded that ''it's never quite as simple as the president believes" and explained why he voted against the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions -- because it did not provide sufficient exceptions for the health of the mother -- and why he opposed a parental-notification bill that would oblige girls who are pregnant due to incest to go to their fathers for permission to have an abortion.

Although Kerry's answer came off as reasonable, it was probably too low-key to fully answer the directness of Bush, who declared: ''That's a vote. It came right up. It's clear for everybody to see."

Those types of assertions are what made Bush a formidable debater in his gubernatorial races in Texas and his first run for the presidency in 2000.

Even on issues in which his positions seem to be at odds with his stated values, he seems so sure of himself that few could doubt his sincerity.

Last night, for instance, he reduced his complicated environmental record to ''I guess you'd say I'm a good steward of the land," rescuing an otherwise rambling response that included the lament that forests are not properly ''harvested" due to ''lousy federal policy."

He was less fluid, overall, than Kerry in explaining policies. For instance, he probably left voters scratching their heads after declaring how seriously he took the threat of North Korea's nuclear program and then, a few minutes later, declared, ''We're moving troops out of Korea."

''One of the most important things we're doing in this administration is transformation," Bush said in another head-scratching response, about a possible military draft. ''There are some really interesting technologies."

The draft question gave Kerry one of his stronger moments, decrying the ''backdoor draft" of reservists being forced to extend their tours in Iraq.

But by the end, Kerry's comfortable, gaffe-free, and easygoing performance seemed less likely to strike a chord with voters than Bush's comfortable, gaffe-free, and emphatic one.

With two debates down, voters may now feel reassured about both candidates, impressed with Kerry's ability to stand up to the president and with Bush's return to his comfort zone last night.

On to Tempe, Ariz., and the last debate of the presidential season Wednesday.

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