IN THE MIDDLE of a disjointed, subpar performance on an evening when he could have locked away a second term, President Bush made an unusually silly attempt to link the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 with the dictator who used to rule Iraq. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had to be invaded last year, said Bush in a feeble summing up, "because the enemy attacked.
Bush can usually get away with attempts to fuse Iraq with Al Qaeda before Republican campaign audiences or the White House press corps, but he was unable to fool the 9/11 commission, and he should not have tried to slip the flat-out misstatement past an alert, acerbic, and effective John Kerry last night.
In a rejoinder that neatly encapsulated Kerry's ability to speak clearly with the highest political stakes involved, Kerry clearly enjoyed drawing the long breath that preceded his response. The last time Kerry had checked, he said, Saddam Hussein had not attacked the United States, but that under Osama bin Laden's direction, Al Qaeda had.
Worse, Kerry said that the United States let him get away from a near-certain trap in Afghanistan and then diverted resources from finding him to assemble the force that is now stuck in Iraq.
Somewhere inside the president's head there was a realization that he had committed one of those gaffes, one of those flagrant goofs that, if not corrected, can create days of trouble.
When he got the floor back, Bush fixed the record with a quick admission that, of course, bin Laden was behind the attacks three years ago. And then he drew the evening's only laugh -- always a clue to a poor performance -- with a pseudo-confident, "I knew that."
He probably does, but Bush has been trying to mislead the country for three years about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda so he could make the two wars one in most Americans' minds. Of late, he has been having more difficulty as the situation in Iraq continues to degenerate.
The Bush campaign has invested more than $100 million to paint Kerry as a flip-flopping opportunist. That's not how he came off last night. It was the president who sought the chance to shine in his favorite subject area and then proceeded to blow the opportunity sky-high.
This race goes on.