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Last week’s debate between the U.S. presidential candidates should end any doubts about the value of such face-offs. The 90-minute encounter in Miami, Florida, did exactly what it was supposed to do: It provided U.S. voters — and the rest of the world — a pointed comparison of the two candidates. While both men sometimes sidestepped the questions they were asked, there was no escaping the sharp contrast between them in policy, personality and approach to problem solving.

There were ample reasons for skepticism about the value of this debate. Its form and format were the subject of intense negotiations. Reportedly, the two campaigns produced some 30 pages of conditions that stipulated everything from the height of the podium to how the two men would be made up. For example, there was to be no direct exchanges between the two candidates and cameras were to focus on the speaker. The television networks disregarded that last proviso, much to President George W. Bush’s disadvantage. The shots of him reacting to Sen. John Kerry’s comments — ranging from anger to apparent disgust — may be the most enduring memory of this debate.

The first encounter focused on foreign policy. This was supposed to be Mr. Bush’s strong suit. His campaign has made his leadership in the war against terror the centerpiece of his re-election effort. Highlights include the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the removal of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libya’s decision to abandon its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush also hoped to force Mr. Kerry on the defensive with attacks on his “flip-flops” — for example, voting to give the president the authority to wage war in Iraq and then saying that he opposed that war.

In fact, the debate focused almost exclusively on Iraq and the war against terrorism. Unfortunately, it did not go as Mr. Bush planned. Rather than putting the Democratic challenger on the defensive, it was the president who seemed unsteady on his feet, at least during the first half of the debate. Mr. Kerry took the attack to Mr. Bush, calling the war in Iraq “a colossal error of judgment” and accusing him of damaging U.S. alliances around the world. Mr. Kerry, who has been loquacious to the point of excess on the campaign trail, kept his answers short and focused.

Mr. Bush eventually recovered his balance, charging that criticism of the war sends the wrong message to U.S. troops, the allies that support and stand alongside them, and the terrorists they are fighting. Returning to the theme that has dominated his campaign, the president argued that not every American agrees with his decisions, but they know where he stands.

One exchange went to the heart of the campaign, Mr. Bush attacked Mr. Kerry for saying he voted for an $87 billion spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it. Mr. Kerry shot back that “when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake of invading Iraq. Which is worse?” Character vs. leadership: This is likely to be the pivotal issue in November.

There were no knockouts in the debate; nor were there any fumbles. Both men made some factual errors, but they were exaggerations rather than pure fabrications. Rather, the two candidates focused on the differences between them.

One exchange of significance to Japanese audiences concerned North Korea. Mr. Kerry attacked the president for failing to engage Pyongyang directly. He said he would conduct both bilateral and multilateral talks with the North. Mr. Bush countered that direct negotiations would undermine the six-party talks and remove U.S. allies and other interested states from the process, ignoring the fact that those same countries have been encouraging Washington to talk to the North.

On another Japanese concern, both men agreed that fighting nuclear proliferation should be a top priority, although Mr. Bush said the real problem is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. This difference in emphasis goes to the heart of debates about U.S. strategy.

Mr. Kerry came in to this debate needing to make a strong performance. He did that. In their exchanges, the two men made clear the choice on Nov. 2: Continuing on the current path — “more of the same” in Mr. Kerry’s words — or taking a risk with a new president. Most important, voters now have even more reason to tune into the two subsequent debates to better understand the two men for whom they will vote in a month’s time.

Correction

Yesterday’s editorial, “Another step toward Cooperstown,” should have identified the San Francisco Giants’ home-run king as Mr. Barry Bonds and stated that Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is in New York.

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