Now, to follow up.
Various mistatements get made in debates. Some clearly intentional; others because of poor memory or confusion. But the president gave the Democrats one helluva gift with that remark about bin Laden.
As you'll remember, it came from this exchange ...
KERRY: Yes. When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of them, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, and Osama bin Laden escaped.
Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, "Where is Osama bin Laden?" He said, "I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned."
We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.
SCHIEFFER: Mr. President?
BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.
Now of course about a thousand wire stories have made crystal clear that the president said precisely that.
As the AP put it in a story out just after the debate ...
Kerry accurately quoted Bush as saying he does not think much about Osama bin Laden and is not all that concerned about him. The president protested: "I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."
But in March 2002, Bush indeed said, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run." He described the terrorist leader as "marginalized," and said, "I just don't spend that much time on him."
It's actually worth reading the passage in its entirety. It comes from a press conference the president held on March 13th 2002, just as the build-up for the Iraq war was getting underway ...
Q But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.
But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became -- we shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. And if we -- excuse me for a minute -- and if we find a training camp, we'll take care of it. Either we will or our friends will. That's one of the things -- part of the new phase that's becoming apparent to the American people is that we're working closely with other governments to deny sanctuary, or training, or a place to hide, or a place to raise money.
And we've got more work to do. See, that's the thing the American people have got to understand, that we've only been at this six months. This is going to be a long struggle. I keep saying that; I don't know whether you all believe me or not. But time will show you that it's going to take a long time to achieve this objective. And I can assure you, I am not going to blink. And I'm not going to get tired. Because I know what is at stake. And history has called us to action, and I am going to seize this moment for the good of the world, for peace in the world and for freedom.
Not only is the quote accurate. But the broader context is <$Ad$>entirely on the mark. This wasn't some stray comment taken out of context.
Setting the narrow gotcha issue aside, though, there are three reasons why the Democrats can use this effectively against the president.
First, this isn't some insignifcant matter like whether Dick Cheney ever met John Edwards. This cuts to the essence of what the election is about: terrorism and whether the president kept his eye on the ball.
Second, the president's honesty is also a central issue. In particular, honesty about terrorism and bin Laden and Saddam. This cuts to the heart of that too: the president not leveling with the public about what's happened in the war on terror.
Third, as Kevin Drum rightly notes, this is an excuse to play that video clip again and again and again. And for the president that's not a good clip at all. In that passage, when the president says that bin Laden has become marginalized and that he's moving ahead with the war on terror, what he's talking about -- more or less explicitly -- is shifting from bin Laden to Iraq. He's describing how he took his eye off the ball. And seeing what we're now seeing in Iraq, that really says it all.