Yeah, yeah, the fence-sitter polls–and most of the commentators–are saying that Dem candidate Sen. John F. Kerry won last night’s debate. (See The Other Charlotte’s Debate Roundup: Who Won? Who Had the Better Manicure? today below.)

And they’re right. Kerry is a skilled and articulate thinker on his feet, while G.W. Bush sounded repetitive and occasionally a mite defensive, such as when he insisted that there will be never be a military draft. That gave credence to the urban legend now making the rounds on liberal listservs that the president’s administration has a secret scheme to force the sons and daughters of the working class to die overseas for Big Oil.

Furthermore, Kerry just plain looked better last night, and hence more presidential, than Bush. All that hair, moussed up into a swirling silver firework explosion atop his head, caught the camera and gleamed, in contrast to Bush’s dull, thinning thatch. Kerry’s towering height made the short, jug-eared Bush, by comparison, look like Bad Santa’s elfin sidekick. The crimson tie that Teresa picked out to go with her husband’s million-dollar suit was a more dramatic choice than Bush’s royal blue (although the blue did bring out Bush’s eyes nicely). No earth tones and Fred Munster makeup for Kerry.

Still, in the end, Bush managed to hold his own. That’s because the otherwise impressive Kerry had a little problem with, um, substance. It wasn’t just his howler in calling the KGB’s old headquarters “Treblinka” (that was a Nazi concentration camp) instead of Lubyanka, its actual name. It was, for example, Kerry’s confused and confusing stance on Iraq: Is the war in Iraq a mistake but our troops are fighting nobly? Or is the war not a mistake but our troops are not fighting nobly because the Bush administration’s tactics in the war are mistaken? Or are our tactics mistaken but our troops noble? Huh? “We should not confuse the war with the warriors,” Kerry declared. Sorry, but I remained confused. And as Kerry twisted his Iraq logic into a pretzel of contradictions, I couldn’t help but think about Kerry’s repeated denigration of his own wartime comrades as monsters of rapine and pillage in Vietnam after he left that theater 30 years ago. I’m sure that a lot of other viewers were thinking the same.

Then there was Kerry’s bizarre assertion that he believes in preemptive war (because he would lose the election if he didn’t!), but only if it passes “the global test.” What? We can’t go after terrorists unless France and Germany (the only two countries, that along with turnabout Spain, count as “global” these days) sign on? We have to clear our national security moves with France? That, of course, dovetailed with Kerry’s proposed strategy for getting us out of Iraq: a “summit.” It was allies, allies, allies with Kerry–and he wasn’t talking about Britain, Italy, or Poland. Kerry even brought the Kyoto global warming treaty (which we, unlike France, Germany, etc., etc., won’t sign) into his discussion of national security. That enabled Bush to deliver a nice comeback that Kerry did not rebut: Bush had refused to sign us on to that other world “summit,” the International Criminal Court, where our French, German, and Belgian “allies” would soon be arresting and trying our servicemen and women for genocide.

Finally, there was Kerry’s strange notion that nuclear proliferation is somehow Bush’s fault because his administration won’t stop researching the nuclear bunker-buster bomb. Yes–a U.S. nuclear freeze and a Kyoto-mandated sayonara to SUVs will make the terrorists of the world love us.

And that was what enabled Bush to surmount his lack of debating style: He offered the substance that Kerry lacked. Sure he sounded awkward and even flustered on occasion, but he drove home, over and over, the point that under his watch, America will always act firmly and without asking anyone’s permission to defend her national security. And Bush does one thing exceedingly well: He connects instinctively with the love of God, family, and country of ordinary people. He may not be a great speaker, but he radiates the sincerity and genuine compassion for our military folk that Kerry, for all his fine words about “warriors,” cannot project. When Bush spoke affectionately about Kerry’s daughters and the kindness they had shown his own (admittedly, Kerry paid equally gentlemanly compliments to Laura), and when he signed off with an invocation that “God bless” the American people, he could not help but move the heart.

So Bush held his own last night. Certainly, he made no gaffes, and his delivery can only improve the next two times around. I won’t be surprised if, when the last poll is in, the one made on Election Day, the debates turn out to help him, not his opponent.