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No gaffes, no slam dunks

As expected, President Bush painted Sen. John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Kerry voted to authorize the war, then denounced it and has thereby undermined his position should be become commander in chief. "What message does that send?" Bush asked repeatedly.

Kerry countered that "this president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment (in invading Iraq), and judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America."

In their first of three presidential debates, this one focusing on international relations, neither candidate struck a fatal blow. Five weeks before voters go to the polls, both candidates labored to firm up their respective positions and avoid the gaffe that would make them fodder for late-night television.

Both succeeded on those fronts, but there was no clear victor. In fact, both men struggled with personal shortcomings that tend to give voters pause.

Kerry needed to present himself as a knowledgeable, confident candidate without coming off as arrogant. When asked by moderator Jim Lehrer to specify the Bush administration's failings in the war in Iraq, a smug Kerry laughed and replied, "Where do you want me to begin?" This was hardly an effective means to win over voters who may like Kerry's politics, but they are turned off by his sometimes pompous demeanor.

Meanwhile, Bush needed to present himself as a capable, intelligent incumbent who has a plan to lead the nation in a very uncertain world. Although it is evident that Bush's knowledge of international affairs has grown exponentially in the past few years, he frequently stammered and paused before answering the moderator's questions. His stock answer to questions about the job of troops in Iraq and first responders protecting the homeland was, repeatedly, "It's hard work." Indeed.

It remains to be seen if the debates propel Bush's lead in the polls or Kerry gets a bump for his sharp criticism of the Bush administration for its intense focus on Iraq, a nation that had no known ties to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States; the growing nuclear threat on the part of North Korea and Iran; and the chilling of democracy in Russia following recent terrorist attacks.

But Bush contended that he's led a successful war against terrorism and that the war has been fought on many fronts. "In Iraq, we saw a threat, and we realized that after September the 11th, we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize. Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell; America and the world are safer for it. We continue to pursue our policy of disrupting those who would proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Libya has disarmed. The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice."

For the most part, Bush and Kerry held their respective ground in a debate many believe will be the most-watched of the three scheduled exchanges.

We encourage Utahns to continue to watch the debates and allow them to be the basis for their decisions at the ballot box. The next debate will be conducted in a town-hall setting in Cleveland on Friday, Oct. 8, with the final debate scheduled for Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz. It will focus on domestic issues.

As contrived and scripted as Thursday's debate was, it is a far better representation of the candidates' respective stands than the intense spin job that will, undoubtedly, follow in the coming week. Utahns need to stay tuned.