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updated 10/15/2004 2:37:36 PM ET 2004-10-15T18:37:36

COMMENTARY

John Kerry grew taller and clearer during the first debate of the presidential season. He turned around a month-long loss of positioning and the neck and neck race is on again.

We found it refreshing at last to see the two men side by side, answering consistent questions on one theme and related topics (foreign policy and homeland security), seeing the personal power and mannerisms of the two men as they engaged each other in the same space.

This is the magic of direct debate without pundits and media advisors. We agree with the consensus that the measure of Kerry the man and Kerry the candidate grew as the 90-minute exchange of views deepened.

John Kerry had to show something substantial about his real character, experience and integrity at the first debate; it was his best chance to brake the pro-Bush forces of the past month, which had largely succeeded in defining his identity. He had to show intelligence and gravitas and he did. Even in the presence of the sitting president of the United States, he managed to appear the most presidential in the room.

Bush stayed on message
President Bush made his usual points and went back on message, again and again, on Kerry's supposed ''flip-flop'' character deficiency. Kerry masterfully deflected the attack; which it turns out is not so easy to pin on him in person. The campaign technique mastered by Karl Rove depends on dominating with an overwhelming caricature of your opponent. It assumes people are completely suggestible, which many people are, but not everybody, not all the time. Sometimes, the obvious emerges with clarity and so it was with the man and candidate John Kerry projected.

Doubly refreshing it was also to hear the two main candidates speaking for themselves apart from the cacophony of their political operatives. There is a hunger for that in this campaign. Our recommended approach: Turn off the pundits immediately following the debate to independently weigh the depth of their ideas and clarity of their elocution, assessing their own words and skills in explaining and educating with their respective positions. The deeply partisan attack campaigns have already dulled the senses. These obscure the clarity of direct observation by the citizenry. Manipulation by brutal caricature has become a profession in public relations methodology. The clarity of the public forum is in its direct approach to discerning the real versus the spinning of the truth.

Both candidates made good points. Bush could brag, particularly, on the dismantling of much of the known al Qaeda leadership and the disarming of Libya. But on Iraq, which he called ''a colossal error of judgment,'' Kerry scored this way: ''The president's father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad, beyond Basra. And the reason he didn't is - he wrote in his book - because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land.''

Bush reasserted his conviction that, ''In Iraq we saw a threat ... September the 11th changed how America must look at the world.'' Bush floated an interesting theory on why the peace plan did not materialize in time: ''A lot of the Baathists and Saddam loyalists laid down their arms and disappeared. I thought they would stay and fight, but they didn't ... because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam loyalists were around. I mean, we thought we'd whip more of them going in.'' The president's main theme: ''American people know I know how to lead ... people know where I stand ...''

Significant blow
However, in response to this type of reasoning Kerry scored a significant blow that spoke directly to the president's experience and intellectual capacity. ''You can be certain and wrong,'' Kerry responded to Bush's sense of mission. Bush, Kerry charged: ''... rushed the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace. More soldiers killed in June than before. More in July than June. More in August than July. More in September than in August.'' The Democratic candidate sustained a convincing logic through the whole session. ''I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are ... we also have to be smart ... We had Saddam Hussein trapped ... [but] diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden ... there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, [no] weapons of mass destruction.'' Kerry also hit a chord on the need for stronger alliances. He would work, ''to isolate the radical Islamic Muslims, not have them isolate the United States of America.'' Presently, he pointed out, ''we are 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost: $200 billion.''

Bush is solidified by the weight of the actual presidency on his shoulders and at his pedestal of granite - a diehard Republican administration and bureaucracy, plus the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court - not to disdain the powerful bully pulpit, from which a president can exert wide influence. But at the first debate Kerry displayed a Lincolnesque persona that exudes depth, intelligence and experience, while Bush seemed to lack brio. Bush fidgeted; he looked ill at ease, pouty and nervous. Even his usual, straight-backed, chest-out, arms-to-the-side, Texas swagger seemed withdrawn for a more relaxed, but visibly diminished presence. The country noticed, and Kerry grew.

The national bounce to Kerry over the weekend confirms our own immediate impression that Kerry connected with both presence and message, whereas Bush did not, at least this round. Behind a near tactically effective convention in August, Bush had been carrying double digit leads going into this first debate. The new Newsweek Poll (Oct. 3) puts Kerry at 49 percent, Bush 46 percent, Nader 3 percent. A non-scientific Internet poll by Wolff Blitzer on CNN asked, ''Who won the debate.'' The response came in at 91 percent for Kerry, with only 6 percent for Bush.

The debate proved a deft reversal by Kerry in what continues to be a dead even wrestling match. On the campaign trail Bush went back on message accusing Kerry of wanting to put U.S. foreign policy under a ''global test.'' Harping on a selected Kerry phrase, the vintage Rove method is to describe it as a ''Kerry Doctrine'' in foreign policy. This is the formidable style that Bush, a relentless opponent, endorses: The continuing caricature is that Kerry is not forthright, not a fully patriotic leader. Bush will certainly work this move to wrestle Kerry down again. From his position as commander in chief, the opportunity for exposure is great and no doubt the Bush campaign will work this angle consistently as well. Furthermore, Bush carries the mantle of Sept. 11, which in itself deflects the Democratic attacks for many people.

As of this writing, however, we can say that John Kerry is back ''in the hunt,'' as Republican commentator Bob Barr had to admit on CNN. Timing will prove of essence in the next four weeks to Nov. 2. The mano-a-mano is on. Connecting with the public just now gives Kerry new momentum.

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