I was going to moan and groan that John Kerry seemed to have plenty of time to chat up Jon Stewart, David Letterman and, Regis and Kelly. No one throwing hardballs in those venues (though Letterman asked some pretty good questions).

But yesterday, after avoiding his traveling press corps since Aug. 9, Kerry held an actual, televised, full-blown news conference. And he handled it well enough that you wonder why he hasn't done more. He is, after all, the challenger, and trying to get his message out.

This week's message, obviously, is Iraq.

Kelly Ripa is cute, and Kerry had a funny line about Bush wanting lifelines in their upcoming debates. (Regis, you may recall, handed those out to potential millionaires.) But to play in the big leagues, you've got to hit big-league pitching.

(Not that the comedy shows have uninformed viewers. Far from it, according to a new Annenberg Election Survey. People who don't watch late-night comedy shows answered an average of 2.62 items correctly on a six-item political knowledge test. Letterman's viewers answered 2.91, Leno fans got 2.95, and "Daily Show" addicts scored on 3.59--though Annenberg hastened to note this isn't because they're learning more from Stewart but because they already know a lot. On the political scale, 31 of Jay's political jokes targeted Bush and 24 percent Kerry. Dave was fair and balanced--15 percent of his political jokes skewered each candidate.)

But I digress. The question is whether the retooled, revamped and fully Clintonized Kerry campaign (motto: we barely know Dan Rather) can turn the campaign debate on Iraq from whether we should have invaded--which brings up the sticky matter of Kerry's vote--to who's responsible for the mess there now.

In other words, Iraq could supplant Vietnam as the campaign's big issue, which would make it about something big, important and real, as opposed to who did what to whom 30 years ago.

Not that there aren't distractions, with the Republicans jumping on that Mary Mapes-to-Joe Lockhart-to-Bill Burkett connection, and CBS admitting that its producer shouldn't be acting as a go-between for the Kerry campaign. My report | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40000-2004Sep21.html is here.

John Edwards, meanwhile, has resurfaced after weeks of being exiled to rural counties. He popped up with CNN's Lou Dobbs and CNBC's Alan Murray and Gloria Borger. Why Kerry hasn't given him a higher-profile role is a mystery.

Now for the rhetorical wars.

"Sen. John F. Kerry on Tuesday sought to focus the political debate on George W. Bush's execution of the war in Iraq, saying the president needs 'to live in the world of reality' about unstable conditions that threaten U.S. security," says the Los Angeles Times. | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-092104trail_lat,1,7636756.story?coll=la-home-headlines

"During a 30-minute news conference, the Democratic presidential candidate was quizzed repeatedly about Iraq, but in every answer, he sought to switch the focus to Bush's leadership. 'Iraq is in crisis and the president needs to live in the world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin,' Kerry said."

The prez made his case at the U.N.:

"President Bush offered the world's leaders no apologies Tuesday for the situation in Iraq or for his original decision to lead an invasion without the United Nations' blessing, telling the General Assembly that the U.S. and its allies delivered 'the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator,'" reports the Chicago Tribune. | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0409220312sep22,1,5407272.story?coll=chi-electionsprint-hed

"As nearly 100 heads of state arrived for the opening of the General Assembly, Bush also struck chords common to his re-election campaign during his annual address to the 191-nation body, embracing broad themes regarding the spread of democracy and the fight against terrorism. . . .

"Bush offered a generally upbeat assessment of progress in Iraq. He defended his decision to go to war and suggested the invasion had international legitimacy because he was carrying out the UN's will even though the body did not vote to support the 2003 invasion."

The New York Times | http://www.9nytimes.9com/92004/909/922/politics/campaign/22assess.9html?hp does the analysis thing:

"To hear President Bush and John Kerry argue bitterly in the last two days about the American mission in Iraq is to wonder if they are talking about the same war, or even the same country.

"At the marble podium of the United Nations, Mr. Bush on Tuesday morning described an Iraq that 'has rejoined the community of nations' and is well on the way to being 'secure, democratic, federal and free' if the world, and America's allies, do not lose their nerve. It was the kind of declaration that prompts cheers at campaign rallies; at the United Nations, it was greeted with the General Assembly's customary silence.

"The day before, just two miles to the south, Mr. Kerry spoke of an invasion of Iraq that 'has created a crisis of historic proportions,' and warned that 'if we do not change course there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight.' He went on to describe a country that bore no resemblance to the one Mr. Bush portrays, one of bombings, beheadings, rampant unemployment and few allies sharing the burden.

"It is no accident. These diametrically opposed images reflect diametrically opposed strategies for the final six weeks of the presidential campaign."

National Review's Rich Lowry | http://nationalreview.com/lowry/lowry200409210840.asp handicaps Iraq for the challenger:

"John Kerry plans to make a fall campaign push on Iraq. Since this issue has been one of his major weaknesses (Quick: Describe his position in a sentence with five clauses or less), this latest new-and-improved Kerry strategy seems folly. But it is conceivable (although not likely) that Kerry can make a comeback based on Iraq. Here is why the gambit at least makes sense and how -- if he makes the right moves -- it could work for him.

"NECESSITY: John Kerry will not win the election trailing President Bush by 20 points on national security. Pointing to the chaos in Iraq offers the best opportunity to dent Bush's national-security credentials.

"ATMOSPHERICS: Bush loses every time there is a picture of another car bombing in Iraq. So the summer helped him, when there were two political conventions and the Olympics, among other things, to keep Iraq on the back pages. The more Kerry highlights Iraq -- rather than Vietnam or health care or whatever -- the more incentive the media have to cover events in Iraq.

"TRUTHFULNESS: The Democrats have wasted a few weeks trying to erode Bush's reputation for honesty by picking away at his National Guard record. But no one cares much about 35-year-old events. On Iraq, Bush is forced to give the sunniest possible picture, one that will depart from more pessimistic analyses within the government (witness the recent National Intelligence Estimate) and perhaps even from reality. It is here that meaningful points can be scored against his truth-telling.

"FERTILE GROUND: Although support for the Iraq War ticked up after the Republican Convention, the public has been roughly divided on whether it's been worth it for most of the year."

Since the Clinton team put Bubba on Arsenio and Imus, they must be behind Kerry's new comedy stylings.

"Sen. John Kerry's first political task yesterday was bantering with Kelly Ripa on Live With Regis and Kelly about her greeting him in the hallway before the show in a ratty Oscar the Grouch T-shirt, her hair in curlers, her hands slick with lotion," begins the Philadelphia Inquirer's | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/9725503.htm investigative report.

"'I never expected to meet you the way I did this morning,' Kerry said as he went on the set of the television station WABC for the nationally syndicated talk show.

"'It's a sight, isn't it?' shot back Ripa's cohost, Regis Philbin.

"'I've embarrassed my family for generations to come,' Ripa said.

"Politically, it may have been Kerry's most important campaign stop of the day - a chance to display his lighter side on a program that reached an average of 4.8 million viewers a day over the last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"On Monday, Kerry dropped by Late Show With David Letterman. Aides said both visits were aimed at addressing what they call the 'likability factor' - the sense identified in recent polls by the Pew Research Center and Zogby International that many voters have not warmed up to Kerry on a personal level.

"'You're very handsome, Senator,' Ripa said. 'Is that inappropriate for me to say?'

"'We're both married, so it's OK,' Kerry said."

Write your own punch line.

USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-09-21-macho-men-cover_x.htm discovers there's a whole other, more subtle competition going on:

"They talk guns, they talk teams, they talk tough. You'd think they were running for top jock. Or maybe leader of the free world.

"It's macho time in the presidential race. The best man could be the one who seems more manly.

"Political analysts say they've never seen anything quite like the tough-guy competition between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. They point to two reasons: Millions of hunters and fishermen live in the battleground states each candidate needs to win, and voters everywhere are haunted by 9/11. . . .

"There's the Everyman series: Bush cutting brush, Kerry tossing a football, the pair aiming rifles and falling off their bikes. And the aristocracy series: Bush fishing in his own lake in Texas and off his father's dock in Maine, Kerry windsurfing and snowboarding near his wife's vacation retreats. And the military series: Bush with troops all over the world, Kerry with veterans all over the country, both of them with generals galore.

"There are interviews with Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream. Excursions to shooting ranges and Cabela's outfitter stores. Prominent displays of manly vehicles: Bush in his pickup and on an aircraft carrier, Kerry on his Harley and piloting a plane."

All that's missing is beer drinking and mud wrestling.

I knew we missed something when the Bush and Kerry camps agreed on debates so quickly. Here's The Note's | http://abcnews.go.9com/9sections/9politics/9TheNote/TheNote.9html take:

"What the Bush campaign got changed:

"1. The first widely watched and covered debate will be on foreign policy and national security, rather than domestic policy.

"2. No direct engagement between the candidates is allowed -- the Commission's proposed plan had actually encouraged such dynamic-changing contact.

"3. As 'Miss (Nicolle) Devenish' told the Washington Times : 'the agreement reached yesterday also will make "very clear whenever the candidates attempt to filibuster or grandstand. There is a light that will flash for TV audiences when that happens -- a historic first," she said. Moderators have to sign on and say they agree with the rules, or we'll find new moderators."'

"4. The voters at the town-hall debate won't be undecideds, but, rather 'soft' supporters of each side -- and we have yet to figure out what that means or why Team Bush preferred that -- but Baker got it.

"5. The candidates can't address each other with 'proposed pledges' (although rhetorical questions are allowed!!).

"6. The town-hallers can't ask follow ups or participate after they ask their one question -- avoiding any prospect of a 'Richmond' moment."

That's a reference to Bush 41 fumbling a question in '92, for you younger readers.

The New Republic's Tom Frank | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=express&s=frank092104 isn't wowed by Kerry the Comedian:

"One can only pity George W. Bush, who has just one real campaign advisor--one who's known, moreover, for being an evil genius. John Kerry, on the other hand, is blessed with thousands of campaign advisors--few of whom are evil, none of whom are geniuses, and all of whom have something to say every day. At least they've finally agreed that their candidate lacked what The New York Times called a 'simple and concise message "frame" through which to filter all their attacks on Mr. Bush.'. . . .

"Kerry headed uptown for a big test of his new, improved candidacy: an appearance on the 'Late Show with David Letterman.' It would not, however, turn out to be a night for concise message frames.

"Unlike Jon Stewart, who, during Kerry's visit to 'The Daily Show' last August, managed to step on Kerry's blabologues every time they seemed to be snowballing, Letterman let Kerry go--and go. Surprisingly, and perhaps to his credit, Letterman asked serious questions throughout the interview, evidently less worried than Stewart about providing his audience with comic fodder. Kerry, as one would expect, responded solemnly and at length. Who knows whether it helped his poll numbers or not? What Kerry's appearance made clear were two things: Someone needs to send Kerry that memo about the new topic sentence; and Kerry still needs some serious practice before he debates Bush."

If ya can't handle Dave . . .

Want more on "60 Minutes"? Of course you do! Slate's Jack Shafer | http://slate.msn.com/id/2106945/ has it:

"The broadest explanation for CBS News' reluctance to correct the record applies, unfortunately, to all journalists, especially investigative journalists: Once journalists commit themselves to a version of events or to a point of view, they are all too often unwilling to change their minds. Remember, Rather producer Mary Mapes had been working on the Bush military beat for five years: Nobody was going to tell her she had the basic story wrong. Sometimes investigative reporters fall down the rabbit hole and wave off any evidence that disturbs the thrust of their story. By all accounts, CBS News did just this by ignoring the warnings of document examiners who wouldn't vouch for the memos.

"Investigative reporters also expect their scoops to be attacked, especially if the story's subject is powerful or shady, so they're emboldened rather than discouraged by the first round of criticism. We must be getting close to the marrow if they're screaming this loud! they think. If the criticism comes from the competition, they're particularly nasty, as Dan Rather was, when he fended off questions about the documents' authenticity by saying that the rest of the media should go after Bush's military record instead of ripping CBS News.

"The bigger the institution, it seems, the stronger is the incentive to dig in and ride out a journalistic miscue. Take, for example, the New York Times' belated responses to the criticisms of its coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The paper only took action on its unsound coverage after months of detailed and irrefutable criticisms from the outside. It's to the Times' credit that it revisited the subject, but why wait so long?...

"Rather appears to have been guided by the belief that he was doing his institution a great favor by holding out instead of retracting the story. Why any institution should believe that shirking the truth in the short run is a path to strength in the long run is beyond me. Rather shares another quirk with Raines in believing that he personifies his beloved institution and that an attack on his work is an attack on his institution. When Rather was still defending the story, he pompously placed himself in the imagined CBS News pantheon of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, saying, 'I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation. . . . We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven't always been right, but our record is damn good.'

"If correcting the record is tantamount to defiling CBS News for Rather, imagine how painful surrendering to critics, which include George W. Bush supporters, must be for him."

Finally, as an old Cat Stevens | http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-09-21-jet-diverted_x.htm fan, I'm wondering how the singer (now Yusuf Islam) wound up on a federal watch list, to the point where a Washington-bound jet from London was diverted to Maine and he was booted from the country.

Is Cat Stevens dangerous? Whatever happened to "Peace Train"?