It was once said of George W. Bush that watching him get through a debate is like watching a wobbly waiter weave among tables while desperately trying to balance a heavy serving platter above his head. You think he’s going to crash at any moment, but somehow he always makes it.

And so it was during the first presidential debate at the University of Miami Thursday night. Bush sputtered and paused and got flustered when asked to explain what the daily specials were. But in the end, he had managed to memorize the house menu and was able to relentlessly repeat the comfort-food entrées: a hearty diet of resolve and single-, if not, simple-mindedness in staying the course.

Kerry, by contrast, came off as a veteran and staid maitre d’ in an upscale eatery, comfortable when speaking to the regular customers who weren’t intimidated by a foreign wine list or a menu written mostly . . . um . . . in French.

That’s not to disparage Kerry. Long ago I predicted that when we got to these debates it was going to go one of two ways. Either a straight-talking Bush was going to plow right over a mumbling, squishy and aloof Kerry. Or a mature, adult-like Kerry was going to dominate a loutish frat-boy Bush. If I had to choose which way it actually played out, I’d definitely say it was close to the latter.

Kerry definitely won the debate on points — most snap polls showed him beating Bush by roughly 10 points. I’m just not sure if it made much difference. If you are a regular reader of The New York Times and you know your Najaf from a hole in the ground, then Kerry probably made a lot of sense. I’m just not convinced that’s what it takes to win debates — or elections — in the present age.

That said, Kerry was stronger than usual, and much more direct, his attacks on Bush and presidential policy were pointed, but he was as passionless as always (though he seemed a jitterbug of edginess and engagement compared to the embarrassing wet noodle known as Jim Lehrer). Not until the closing statement of the last two minutes did Kerry figure out to look at the camera — and therefore the audience. For the previous 88 minutes he stared only at the narcoleptic Lehrer, talking right by the viewers, a fitting metaphor for his entire inept campaign.

Kerry did an admirable job, though, on debunking Bush’s Iraq strategy. His best punch was in four simple words: “More of the same” is how Kerry described the Bush plan for Iraq. It was a particularly devastating characterization on a day when 40 more victims were blown away by the anarchy in Iraq — 34 of them children. Kerry also scored points when he quoted Bush’s poppy, who said he had decided in 1991 not to occupy Iraq precisely because he could see “no exit strategy.”

Kerry was weakest, of course, in outlining just what his exit strategy might be — other than winning, whatever that means in the current context. I won’t linger on this point, only because it is such well-trod territory. Suffice it to say that Kerry has forever boxed himself in on the issue of Iraq by having voted for the war-power authorization and then saying, in August, that he’d do it again if asked. Indeed, there’s little practical difference between the Bush and Kerry “plans,” aside from the crucial point that Kerry recognizes that Iraq is a “mess” while the president keeps repeating “we’re making progress.” Kerry was also clearer than he’s been in the past that war could have been avoided: “I made a mistake in how I talked about the war,” Kerry said in reference to his now legendary statement that he voted for the $87 billion war-spending supplemental before he ultimately voted against it. “But the president,” he added, “made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

Bush was clearly on the defensive for almost the entire debate, failing to get the ball out of Kerry’s hands. Bush also failed to offer much of a defense and explanation of the Iraq policy, as his spinners and surrogates had been promising over the prior week. When he, once again, attempted to justify the invasion of Iraq as part of a broader response to the attacks of 9/11. he got called out by Kerry.

If you watched the debate, you could see why the Bush campaign had tried to block the networks from broadcasting any “reaction” shots. On several occasions when the cameras panned to him while Kerry was talking, Bush looked annoyed, pissed off that he had to be there, almost spoofing Dana Carvey spoofing Bush 41. You can be sure Bush was counseled to not look so snarky. But he was so obviously uncomfortable being there, so uncertain in his intellectual footing that his uneasiness just boiled through.

This is also Bush’s strength, for those who like that sort of thing. He was, as they say on the West side of L.A., living in the moment; he was emotionally “there” and if that is, as some believe, a symptom of authenticity, then his unsteady presence might have been a plus (though certainly not on the West side!).

Bottom line: Both men survived despite their glaring faults. At least we get to the second debate with some level of suspense.

Kerry’s campaign has been so weak that, in defiance of all the laws of political gravity, this election campaign had become a referendum on him instead of on a president who has enmeshed the country in an endless and costly war, looted the treasury, lost a million jobs and scorned most of our traditional allies. (About the only tangible policy that Bush boasted about in the debate was his administration’s refusal to support the International Criminal Court).

On this night of the first debate, with expectations so low for him, Kerry managed to at least survive. His supporters went into the debate terribly demoralized, afflicted with an industrial-strength dose of buyer’s remorse. A national poll going into the debate revealed that while 61 percent of Republicans were “enthusiastic” about their candidate, only a paltry 31 percent of Democrats said the same.

The dynamics of this first debate will most certainly help to mediate the worst nightmares of many Democrats. They can now pull back from suicidal to merely panicked.

Likewise, the cocksuredness of the Bushies was undeniably shaken by the performance of the War President. Even when matched up against a John Kerry, the real George W. Bush was nakedly on display (at least for anyone who cared to see): a guy not up to the job, and certainly someone not ready to pick up the mess he’s spilled all over the floor.

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